Homeless Population Shrinks Again, But Unevenly

The number of homeless people in the U.S. has declined for the third straight year. New numbers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development show a large decrease in the number of homeless veterans. Though there are still large numbers of homeless, mainly concentrated in large cities, including New York City and Los Angeles.

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New government figures show a nationwide decline in homelessness. It's down four percent since last year and six percent since 2010. That's when President Obama announced his strategic initiative to end homelessness. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, some parts of the country have fared better than others.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Life was always tough for Floyd Summers. He'd been hearing voices since he was in the Army during the war in Vietnam. He moved from city to city, got married, got divorced. When he came to L.A., he couch-surfed for a long time and spent a year and a half living in his truck. Then, last year, he moved into a quiet one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley.

FLOYD SUMMERS: Wow, I was so excited, knowing I would be able to have my own place and my own apartment.

JAFFE: Just like about 60,000 other formerly homeless veterans who now have permanent roofs over their heads, thanks to a collaboration between the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD supplies a rental voucher, the VA provides supportive services. Floyd Summers' VA counselors even drove him around while he was apartment hunting.

SUMMERS: And this was the first place they brought me to. And when I saw it, I wasn't choosy. I wasn't anything but overjoyed.

JAFFE: There's been a 24 percent decline in the number of homeless veterans. It's the biggest success story since the administration's homeless initiative began in 2010. But HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan says there are other successes to report. For example...

SECRETARY SHAUN DONOVAN: A 16 percent reduction in the number of chronically homeless folks who have been on the streets for long periods of times. What I see here is remarkable progress, particularly in the context of the headwinds we've faced in our economy.

JAFFE: The government report is just a snapshot. The figures were gathered on a single night in late January, when homeless agencies across the country went into shelters, streets, parks and alleys and conducted a head count. And while homelessness is down overall, some places reported an increase. Those include Los Angeles and New York City, which, by themselves, account for about a fifth of all the homeless people in the country. Michael Arnold is the head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

MICHAEL ARNOLD: We're a little bit disappointed to see an increase because there's been an enormous focus on provision of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless.

JAFFE: Nevertheless, homelessness in Los Angeles rose about 2 percent last year, until you add the people sometimes called the hidden homeless, the ones who live in backyards or garages or cars. Then, L.A.'s homeless population shows an increase of 16 percent. Arnold says that's happened since the extra money from the 2009 federal stimulus bill ran out.

ARNOLD: When those resources dried up, we see our numbers going back up.

JAFFE: And with sequestration and other budget pressures on the federal level, further declines in the number of homeless people may be harder to come by, says HUD Secretary Donavan.

DONOVAN: So I'm concerned unless we get more investment in these programs in the budget deal that's gonna be made by Congress in next couple months, we're actually going to reverse the progress that we've been making.

JAFFE: Which would make it rough on the more than 600,000 men, women and children who are still homeless, despite today's encouraging news. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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