Homelessness Declines, but the Rent Is Still Too Damn High

Too many Americans are still at risk, but there’s a lesson to be learned from veterans who now have shelter.
(Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Apr 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

First, here’s some good news: The size of every major group of homeless people—veterans, families, and the chronically homeless—decreased between 2013 and 2014.

Now, here’s the bad news: The number of people at risk of homelessness hasn’t returned to prerecession levels, mainly because of high housing costs.

That’s the takeaway from a new report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The number of people in shelters and on the streets continues to go down because communities are working hard and using smart approaches to address homelessness,” Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the NAEH, told TakePart. “But it will continue to be a problem if the supportive housing issue continues to hang over our heads.”

Job prospects have improved: on Friday, the Labor Department reported that nearly 126,000 jobs were added in March, and that the national unemployment rate remained steady at 5.5 percent. But the poverty rate has also remained steady, and employment rates haven’t kept up with housing costs. This means that more families and individuals who have housing are at risk of losing it. It also means the number of poor renter households that pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing has remained high. In short, poor families are facing a significant burden.

“It’s taken the longest time for unemployment to really help people at the bottom of the labor market find jobs regularly,” said Berg. “The fear is they will be left behind as the rental market recovers and rents go up.”

The good news is that the country has seen major success in combatting homelessness among one segment of the population. According to the report, the number of homeless veterans decreased by 10.5 percent, or 25.5 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population, between 2013 and 2014. And since 2010, veterans have seen a 33 percent decrease in homelessness. This is largely due to President Obama’s initiatives to fund veterans’ homelessness initiatives. This kind of targeted government investment is a potential blueprint for solving social problems that afflict specific populations.

“People thought it was impossible to end homelessness. We’re hoping the greater news about how many fewer homeless vets there are will open people’s eyes,” Berg said. “If it turns out to be completely doable and not that expensive, then we’re hopeful that people will get behind that even more than they already have.”

Ultimately, it is more expensive for a person to be chronically homeless than to get supportive housing help from the state. Repeated trips to emergency rooms, jails, and shelters add up and cost taxpayers more money than targeted supportive housing programs. With fewer veterans on the street, it’s possible that the federal government could similarly invest to combat homelessness across the board.