While the slight decline in the total number of homeless Americans in 2013 is something to cheer about, the number of homeless kids in our country has hit an all-time high and a huge swath of Americans are still without housing, left behind by the economic recovery and a shrinking social safety net.
“The economy is recovering, but it doesn’t seem like that is trickling down,” said Nan Roman, president and chief executive of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “If you’re making minimum wage, you’re really not making enough anywhere in the country for housing.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that homelessness dropped by nearly 4 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, released in late November.
The report found that 610,000 people were homeless in January 2013. Sixty-five percent were in shelters; the rest were living outdoors, either on the street, in cars, or in tents. The 2013 figure is down 9 percent from 2007.
Some think the actual number of homeless is far greater because the HUD report does not include people “doubled up” with friends or relatives, those living short-term in motels, or those who simply evaded being counted.
A number that is not dropping is the number of homeless schoolchildren. The U.S. Department of Education found that the number of homeless kids increased by 10 percent in the 2012–13 school year over the previous year, to a record 1.2 million kids.
“The numbers are still going up,” said Eric Tars, director of human rights and children’s rights programs for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “The recession is not over for the vast majority of people living at or near poverty in this country.”
Officials in more than half of 25 large and midsize cities agree. They reported a 3 percent rise in homelessness in 2013, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors survey in December.
Moreover, cities expect homelessness to spike in 2014 because of looming federal funding cuts in food stamps and the end of long-term unemployment benefits after Christmas, which could push those barely making ends meet into homelessness.
There are some success stories. Efforts to get the chronically homeless and veterans off the streets have made significant headway.
The number of homeless vets plummeted by 8 percent in 2013, down 24 percent from 2007, HUD said, as the government pushed to get disabled vets into permanent housing with services and to give short-term assistance to veterans undergoing hardship so they do not become homeless.
“There’s a lot of political will around veterans now,” Roman said.
Likewise, the number of chronically homeless people (defined as those without housing for at least a year or who have experienced homelessness at least four times in three years) decreased by 7 percent over the past year, a total 25 percent drop since 2007, with moves to get them into housing that offers supportive services such as mental health, drug rehabilitation, and job training.
“It shows that when you put resources in place, you can be on your way to eliminating homelessness,” Tars said. “But what’s being neglected is the overall housing crisis and housing homeless families in general.”
Advocates say more needs to be done to address high housing costs, the root cause of homelessness.
Several years of high foreclosure rates have meant millions of former home owners are now tenants, squeezing demand and boosting rents. Developers prefer to build high-end homes with bigger profit margins, while the federal government has cut its subsidized housing program for low-income people, known as Section 8.
“Housing costs are going up a lot more than incomes,” Roman said. “People are staying in shelters so they can save the first and last months’ rent.”
Homeless trends in the nation’s two largest cities where housing costs are exorbitant—New York and Los Angeles—underscore the need for affordable housing. Both cities saw big increases in their homeless populations over the past year, defying the national trend.
New York saw a 13 percent jump in its homeless population—to 64,000—in the past year, while Los Angeles saw its homeless population soar in January 2013 to 53,000, a 27 percent jump.
In Los Angeles, the large homeless population recently spurred the City Council to consider a ban on outdoor feeding of the homeless by charities because of litter and food safety concerns and to encourage them to go to shelters.
“That’s insane,” said Los Angeles homeless activist Jeff Page, known as “General Jeff” in downtown’s Skid Row, where 2,000 people bed down nightly in shelters and on sidewalks. “The shelters can’t handle the influx of people they have now.”
Activists called on the government to do more to help those stuck on the bottom rung of the country’s social ladder. One idea advocated by the National Law Center is to repurpose foreclosed, vacant homes to house homeless people.
“We think it’s absurd that there are so many homeless people and so many people-less homes,” Tars said. “Despite the economic recession, we are still the wealthiest country in the world. It’s simply unacceptable for homelessness to exist.”