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The Obama administration plans next week to announce a national strategy to end homelessness. Obviously, it's an ambitious goal, but there was at least one encouraging sign this week in the latest count of the nation's homeless.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The positive news was that the number of homeless people in America dropped slightly last year, and that was at a time of high unemployment and record high foreclosure rates. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 1.56 million people spent at least one night in an emergency shelter in 2009. It was 1.6 million the year before.

But within these numbers were some troubling trends. Homeless families with children increase seven percent. The bad economy has been blamed, and that worries Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Ms. NAN ROMAN (President and CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness): Homelessness tends to be a lagging indicator in the sense that people don't get foreclosed on or lose their job and go to the homeless shelter the next day. They use up their resources. They stay with friends and family, and it takes quite a while before they become homeless.

FESSLER: And HUD acknowledges that a lot more families were doubling and tripling up last year, numbers not reflected in the new report. But HUD Assistant Secretary Mercedes Marquez says something else wasn't reflected, and that's the impact of $1.5 billion Congress approved last year to help prevent families from becoming homeless and to quickly rehouse those who do. The money is only starting to be spent.

Ms. MERCEDES MARQUEZ (Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development): What we will see for the first time in next year's work and next year's count is the impact of that 1.5 billion on the homeless population and with families.

FESSLER: She hopes that means the numbers will go down.

She says what's most encouraging this year is a 10 percent decline in chronic homelessness. These are individuals - often with health or substance abuse problems - who live in the streets for long periods of time. Marquez credits a big push in cities to move these people into permanent homes.

Linda Kaufman is with Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit group that's been working with local officials over the past two years to do just that.

Ms. LINDA KAUFMAN (Chief Operating Officer, Pathways to Housing DC): By next month, there will be a thousand people that moved off the streets of Washington, D.C., into permanent housing. This is not shelter. It's not transitional housing. It's permanent housing. So we see the numbers of people on the streets of Washington, D.C., going down.

FESSLER: She says an annual one-night count this past January found 70 people living on downtown D.C. streets - half the number found in 2008. But such programs are labor-intensive and costly. The chronically homeless need not only a roof over their heads but also counseling and other support.

The administration is expected to push for more such programs in its new plan, but Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, thinks all the attention on ending chronic homelessness might have been misplaced.

Mr. NEIL DONOVAN (Executive Director, National Coalition for the Homeless): So now, what we're finding is that there is an increase in family homelessness. It doesn't take a lot of analysis to figure out that when you focus your time, attention and resources on a small number of the population, that it's going to have an adverse impact on others.

FESSLER: And he thinks family homelessness is a lot more widespread than the HUD report shows. He hopes the new national strategy will address the full scope of the problem.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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