The Astonishing Decline of Homelessness in America

By Stephen Lurie

Despite a housing crisis, a great recession, rising income inequality, and elevated poverty, there is some good news among the most vulnerable segment of American society. America’s homeless population – an estimated 633,000 people – has declined in the last decade.

This seems incredible – perhaps literally, so. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a leader in homelessness service and research, estimates a 17% decrease in total homelessness from 2005 to 2012. As a refresher: this covers a period when unemployment doubled (2007-2010) and foreclosure proceedings quadrupled (2005-2009).

It’s equally shocking that politicians haven’t trumpeted this achievement. Nor have many journalists. Yes, there’s a veritable media carnival attending every Bureau of Labor Statistics “Jobs Report” on the first Friday of the month. We track the unemployment rate obsessively. But the decline in homelessness hasn’t attracted much cheerleading.

And what about the presidents responsible for this feat? General anti-poverty measures – for example, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit -- have helped to raise post-tax income for the poorest families. But our last two presidents have made targeted efforts, as well. President George W. Bush’s “housing first” program helped reduce chronic homelessness by around 30% from 2005 to 2007. The “housing first” approach put emphasis on permanent housing for individuals before treatment for disability and addiction.

The Great Recession threatened to undo this progress, but the stimulus package of 2009 created a new $1.5 billion dollar program, the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. This furthered what the National Alliance called “ground-breaking work at the federal level…to improve the homelessness system by adopting evidence-based, cost effective interventions.” The program is thought to have aided 700,000 at-risk or homeless people in its first year alone, “preventing a significant increase in homelessness.”

Since then, the Obama administration also quietly announced in 2010 a 10-year federal plan to end homelessness. This is all to say that the control of homelessness, in spite of countervailing forces, can be traced directly to Washington—a fact openly admitted by independent organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Out of Sight ... 

The decline of homelessness over the past eight years is nothing short of a blue-moon public policy triumph. Why don’t you know about it?

Could it be because we’d prefer not to hear about it? For the fortunate, one’s daily interaction with the homeless is practiced ignorance. Part of any city-dweller’s habit is to swiftly pass those on the street, averting one’s eyes, or perhaps floating a statement about not having any change on you. In a Gallup poll from early August, just 2 percent of respondents said that the category of “Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness” constituted “the most important problem facing this country today.”

Unlike the jobs report, there is no famous, metronomic update on the state of homelessness in America. The “Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress” of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is a front-page rarity. Since its first iteration in 2007, the report that collects information on homelessness nationwide, has been mentioned in one article of the archives of both the New York Times and Washington Post, combined. Coverage of homeless issues—found extensively in the “street papers” produced in many cities like Chicago’s Streetwise—is just not a topic that catches attention for wider audiences.

... Out of Mind

In the next few years, as Washington looks to cut spending across the board, the public’s aversion to homelessness could contribute to its return. We have seen that some constituents have successfully lobbied to overturn some parts of the sequester, such as the FAA cuts. But the homeless population has notoriously low voter turnout, and certainly has little money to spare for campaign contributions. They are unlikely to have much power in an age of austerity and there seems to be little recognition or reward to be gained for politicians by serving the homeless.

As quietly a homelessness has fallen, so too it will go up quietly – without major intervention.  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that sequestration cuts from homelessness programs are set to expel 100,000 people from a range of housing and shelter programs this year. That’s nearly one sixth of the current total homeless population. Far from gently raising the homeless rate, it would undo a full decade of progress.

Unless the 2014 budget remedies some of the change coming to housing services in the second half of this year, the homelessness rate will soon rejoin other bleak indicators of economic recovery. The President can make a public plea for increased assistance for remarkably well-functioning homelessness initiatives. Congress can act to save the surprising success story of Bush era and stimulus programs. The general public can advocate for the vulnerable within their community.

But first, we have to notice what we’ve learned to ignore. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/08/the-astonishing-decline-of-homelessness-in-america/279050/