Preventing homelessness is a key focus of new Biden plan The Biden administration says to end the homelessness crisis, more must be done to keep people from losing housing in the first place. But identifying and reaching those most at risk is a challenge.

'It is the obvious thing.' The White House tries a new tack to combat homelessness

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On a single winter's night in January, officials across this country conducted a survey. They tried to count people who are homeless - on the streets, in tents, in shelters, in cars or on couches. They found the numbers stable but still high. And data from other nights find that many people are churning in and out of being unhoused. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on what the U.S. plans to do about it.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: At the nonprofit Friendship Place in Washington, D.C., there's a steady stream of unhoused people coming in for help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It is about...


SCARLET LEVY: Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Youth specialist Scarlet Levy fields requests for coffee, snacks, clothing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I meant to come out here yesterday to get, like, gloves and clothes and everything, but I just couldn't make it.

LEVY: OK. So we - like, we just have those smaller gloves right now.

LUDDEN: After rising since 2016, the number of people experiencing homelessness this year leveled off. A nationwide count released today was roughly the same as it was in 2020. Biden officials and others say the number likely would have been higher without all the financial help during the pandemic. And with much of that now gone, they worry.

Friendship Place program officer Sean Read says it is important to try and help people before they lose housing.

SEAN READ: What are the creative solutions three steps before the full-blown emergency?

LUDDEN: He says it could be paying parking tickets, getting a driver's license reinstated or a car repaired.

READ: And if you can do an $800 car repair, that keeps them in work that is then able to pay the $2,000-a-month rent. You've addressed the issue earlier on at a lower cost.

LUDDEN: That approach, helping people preemptively, is what stands out in the Biden administration's latest plan to tackle homelessness, also out today.

Jeff Olivet heads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which created the report. He says prevention should be done in a systematic way, focused especially on those most vulnerable - people who are leaving prison, addiction or mental health treatment, foster care.

JEFF OLIVET: At those critical moments of transition, we have an opportunity. We know where people are. We could bridge that inpatient or incarceration or foster care experience straight into housing. It does not have to result in shelter or living in a tent.

LUDDEN: Helping people before a crisis is exactly right, says Paul Downey. He's been working on homelessness for three decades but only had this aha moment last year.

PAUL DOWNEY: Prevention has been overlooked. I mean, it is the obvious thing - you know, stop it from occurring.

LUDDEN: Downey heads the nonprofit Serving Seniors in San Diego, where a quarter of the unhoused are 55 or older. His revelation came when he surveyed seniors and they said just a few hundred dollars a month could keep them off the streets. Now San Diego City and county have a pilot program subsidizing rent for seniors and others by up to $500 a month. Downey says it's a bargain compared to the roughly 35,000 a year it cost for one person experiencing homelessness there.

DOWNEY: When you factor in police, fire, paramedic, criminal justice system, ERs, you come up with prevention that might cost you five, $6,000 a year, looks like a good economic solution, in addition to, of course, being a good human solution.

LUDDEN: But finding those most likely to lose housing can be a major challenge. Los Angeles County is one place trying out a computer model to predict it. It tracks data from eight different agencies, and when it flags someone who might be struggling, caseworkers reach out to try and help. Olivet, who helped write the Biden homelessness plan, says that's a model the federal government could learn from.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.


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