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Here's one way to measure homelessness in the past year. The federal government tracks how many people spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. Last year, about 1.6 million Americans did. That is a slight increase in homelessness. And many of those seeking shelter are families. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Unidentified Man: How many do we get?
FESSLER: But HUD assistant secretary Mercedes Marquez says it's surprising the numbers didn't go even higher.
MERCEDES MARQUEZ: Well, given the challenges that we've had in the economy and unemployment and rates of foreclosure, it would seem fair to guess that you would see a significant increase in homelessness.
FESSLER: She credits a $1.5 billion program in the economic stimulus bill for helping hundreds of thousands of people avoid homelessness or quickly find new homes, with things such as rent subsidies.
MARQUEZ: It has had a significant impact on making sure that if folks, particularly families, did experience homelessness that it was a short experience.
FESSLER: Patrick Markee, who's with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, agrees that the stimulus bill helped keep the numbers down. He too thought they'd be higher. But, he says, homeless counts aren't always reliable.
PATRICK MARKEE: That's particularly true when you look at the unsheltered homeless, folks who are sleeping out on the streets and other public spaces. It's notoriously difficult to count that population with any accuracy. In New York City, you know, we've long felt that the city's attempt to estimate the unsheltered homeless population has resulted in undercounts.
FESSLER: His big concern now is that the funding in the stimulus bill is running out, and all the talk in Washington is about cutting spending on things such as affordable housing.
MARKEE: Exactly the things that are going to result in solutions to the problems of homeless and that actually will save taxpayer money in the long run.
FESSLER: And Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says she's worried that the increase in homelessness among families is only the beginning.
NAN ROMAN: You know, homelessness is a lagging indicator, so we are concerned that people who've been doubled up and unemployed and so forth, that eventually we're going to start seeing them in the homelessness system, and then we're going to have really not enough resources to help them.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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