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Sequestration cuts threaten to undo gains in ending homelessness

It’s not often that we get to shine light on positive housing news coming out of Washington, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) recently released Point-in-Time (PIT) Estimates of Homelessness for 2013 are certainly something to celebrate. HUD’s recent estimates revealed nationally, homelessness declined 4 percent between 2012 and 2013, and a 9 percent decline since 2007. Since 2010 there has also been a 24 percent decline in homelessness among veterans. This steep decline is likely directly linked to the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (VASH) program which funds housing and clinical services for homeless veterans. The concerted push by the federal government to prevent and end homelessness appears to be working. But as the nation continues its slow and uneven recovery from the recession there is so much more work to be done.

These positive national numbers obscure some distressing local trends where, in places like the District of Columbia and New York, homelessness numbers increased. The most startling increase is in the state of North Dakota where homelessness increased by just over 200 percent between 2012 and 2013. The percentage is so high because of the state’s relatively low homeless population, which increased from 688 to 2,069 this year, but the increase is dramatic nonetheless. The state’s oil and gas boom has contributed to housing shortages, with the demand for affordable housing far outpacing the supply. Other states that saw increases over the last year are California, South Carolina, and Massachusetts, while Florida, Colorado, and Texas saw substantial declines. Check out HUD’s state tables to investigate trends in your own state.

The differences in state counts are driven by a combination of local factors such as population distribution, funding sources, and prioritization of housing and homelessness issues. For example, localities with a more robust shelter system may have higher counts because it is easier to count the sheltered rather than unsheltered. And with the number of sheltered homeless increasing slightly nationally as the overall count declines, this points to an emergency shelter and transitional housing system that is increasingly serving more people.

On the other hand, in states with a larger rural population there may be some undercounting, as it is more difficult to count people who are dispersed. Furthermore, with federal resources dwindling, cities and localities have stepped up as they can by stretching resources and implementing innovative strategies to combat homelessness. But as localities have had to make tough decisions to shift (or cut) resources away from homeless services in response to the recession, there are real and immediate implications for the homeless and near-homeless populations in these communities.

Continued year-over-year cuts to valuable housing programs risk undoing the positive gains we are making. If we are serious as a nation about ending homelessness we must support the full spectrum of housing programs, programs designed not only to re-house those who have become homeless, but to prevent homelessness altogether. Crucial programs such as rental assistance can lessen the burden of rising rents and prevent displacement, while funding for supportive housing can provide needed shelter and services like job readiness and addiction and recovery programs. As need rises it is critical to continue to provide strong funding for HUD programs that help individuals and families avoid homelessness. Otherwise, we risk undoing years of positive gains.

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