Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

US homeless numbers drop, but low pay threatens progress

Experts say the root of the problem is a combination of high housing costs and low earnings

Homelessness in the United States is on the decline, according to a new report released Wednesday. But experts said low pay and the rising cost of housing threaten the progress that has been made.

The report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a coalition of public and private organizations, compares homeless populations and sub-populations, and explores trends among people at risk of becoming homeless.

Nationwide, the homeless population has dropped to 610,042 – down from nearly 634,000 last year – but there are still high levels of child, youth and veteran homelessness across the country, the report said.

It said the numbers decreased in every major sub-population: homeless families (down by 7 percent), chronically homeless individuals (7.3 percent), and veterans (7.3 percent).

The slight decrease follows a downward trend that started in 2005. But experts in the field said the overall number does not paint the full picture.

“It’s gone down by a few percentage points, but it’s still scandalously high,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

For all the complexity of the issue, Berg said the main cause is relatively simple.

“I think it’s just a matter of housing costs being too high and earnings being too low. It’s just simple math,” said Berg. “A smaller number of people experience homeless as a result of mental illness, and that also is part of the problem, and there needs to be a solution for that.” But he stressed that the majority of homeless are people hit by the rising cost of living.

In one striking trend to emerge from the report, the number of homeless veterans was 27 homeless per 10,000 people – triple the general rate. Berg said that even one homeless vet was too many, but that programs designed to help them are working, bringing the number down by around 25 percent since 2009.

For both veterans and the general population, Washington, D.C. had the nation’s highest levels: 106.2 homeless per 10,000 people, and 159.5 homeless vets per 10,000 people. Mississippi, by comparison, had the lowest general figure at just 8 homeless people per every 10,000.

Charting homeless subpopulation trends between 2005 to 2013. In that time, the overall homeless population decreased by 150,000.
National Alliance to End Homelessness

Laura Zeilinger, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), also said the real issue is access to affordable housing.

“Without the safety and stability of a home, educational access is difficult for children, employment opportunities are difficult,” she said, adding that a home tops the list “in the hierarchy of need.”

Berg and Zeilinger said federal programs such as rapid-rehousing, which provides either financial assistance to keep people in their homes or helps them quickly find another place, have played a big role in bringing the homeless rate down.

“Certainly we’re turning in the right direction,” Zeilinger said. “People look away when they see homelessness because it’s painful. What people need to understand is that it is way too soon to let up. We have much further to go, but we can get there.”

Federal funding to combat homelessness is at its highest level in history, according to the report, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) giving out $2.1 billion in grants for homeless assistance in 2013. HUD has also partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and has received $75 million to give out a total of 10,000 new HUD-VA housing vouchers specifically intended to get homeless vets off the streets or out of shelters, and into transitional housing.

Homeless veterans aren’t the only sub-population faced with high rates of homelessness. The report said that in 2013 there were 46,924 homeless youth – 8 percent of the total homeless population, with some children living on the streets by themselves. In California there were 15,469 unaccompanied homeless children, the highest level of any state.

More than 222,000 people who had a family experienced homelessness in 2013, and nearly 71,000 entire families found themselves on the streets, the report said.

Considering Washington, D.C., as a state for the purposes of the report, 31 states saw a decrease in their homeless levels in 2013 – but 20 states saw their levels go up. Twenty-four states had an increase in their poverty rates, and people living at or near the poverty line face a higher risk of homelessness.

Berg noted the risk of becoming homeless is greatest for people who have resorted to doubling up – sharing a house with another family – and for people spending too much on rent.

“If you look at the number of poor people who are doubled up or paying more than 50 percent for their rent, they’re housed – but it wouldn’t take much for them to lose that,” Berg said. “And those doubled-up situations, that’s one step away from homelessness.”

To keep lowering homeless numbers, Berg said the government must continue and increase funding for programs to help those in need.

“With the economy the way it is, if the investments in homeless programs stop then homelessness would be drastically worse,” he said.

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