A homeless man takes a nap on a bench at the snow-covered Lafayette Park near the White House in Washington on February 14, 2014.  US. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SamadJEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

 

The colder it gets, the easier it is to count the number of homeless people.

Bad weather tends to drive the homeless into shelters, where it’s easier to keep a tally, which is why the government’s annual count of the homeless population takes place in late January.

This year, the weather was so cold in January that some housing advocates expected the extreme chill would force more people than usual into the shelters, and artificially inflate the numbers.

“We were surprised when the numbers went down,” said Nan Roman, chief executive of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “It means that there’s progress. Our strategies are working better.”

A federal report released this week shows that 578,424 people were homeless this year, down 2 percent from last year and 10 percent from 2010 – when the Obama administration launched an initiative aimed at ending homelessness for particularly vulnerable groups.

Since then, the numbers have been dropping consistently year to year, with an especially significant decline among homeless veterans (33 percent.) Still, the administration has set ambitious goals, and some experts who track the homeless issue are questioning whether the target dates will be met.

The federal initiative, called Opening Doors, initially aimed to eliminate homelessness by 2015 for veterans and the “chronic homeless” – people who have been on the street or in shelters for at least a year, or have experienced four episodes or more of homelessness in the past three years. But the administration has pushed back its deadline for the chronic homeless to 2016 due to budgetary shortfalls. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked for another $300 million to meet the new goal.

This week's report, which is based on the counting done by homeless services providers and volunteers across the country, is considered the most definitive account of homelessness on a national basis. The counting takes place on a single day in late January, though the day varies by locality. Here are some highlights from that assessment, which was released by HUD:

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There are fewer homeless people, but about one-third of them are without shelter. Despite the gains made in combating homelessness, nearly 31 percent of those who are homeless are not sheltered.  They are the 177,373  people that the system is not helping.
 

Homelessness remains concentrated in high-population states with large urban centers.  Half of the homeless population was in five states: California (20%), New York (14%), Florida (7%), Texas (5%), and Massachusetts (4%).


 

 

 

Nearly 1 in 5 homeless people was located in New York City or Los Angeles. “If we ended homelessness in New York and LA, we’d go a long way in resolving the homelessness problem,” Roman said.

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More than 1 in 10 homeless adults was a veteran. Nearly 50,000 veterans are still homeless. But much progress has been made on that front. Veteran homelessness dropped by 10 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone, which translates to 5,846 fewer homeless people. There’s tremendous political and public will at the moment to help veterans, and a lot of federal dollars have been devoted to the effort. "Homelessness is not an intractable problem,” Laura Green Zeilinger, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told reporters. “It’s a solvable problem.”

 

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More permanent, and less transitional housing. Housing advocates say that’s a good thing. In the past, homeless people had to clean up their acts before they were offered permanent housing. Now there’s an emphasis on providing housing first, with the idea being that it’s difficult for people to stabilize their lives if they don’t have a roof over their heads, said Alvaro Cortes, a principal associate at Abt Associates, the project director of HUD’s annual homelessness report.

This chart shows a jump in the number of beds for permanent supportive housing, which is rent-subsidized housing for people with mental illness, physical disabilities or substance abuse. The housing comes with services tailored to an individual’s needs.

“We’re confident that we’re not only saving lives, we’re saving money because folks are no longer caught in the cycle of shelters, emergency rooms and other public services that require taxpayer dollars,” HUD Secretary Julian Castro told reporters.

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