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Nationwide, Homelessness Plunged Under Obama

Veteran homelessness in particular could soon be a thing of the past, unless the Trump administration and Republican Congress reverse course.

President Barack Obama and the first family serving Thanksgiving dinner at a church homeless center in Washington, D.C., in 2015. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On a single night in January 2016, more than half a million people across the U.S. were homeless. That number is large (549,928 people) but it has declined substantially since 2010, when the Obama administration introduced Opening Doors, the nation’s first strategic federal plan to solve homelessness. The plan appears to be working.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development just released its 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, which breaks down the results of a nationwide point-in-time estimate conducted in January. Agencies in some 3,000 cities counted individuals and families living in shelters, temporary housing, or outside shelters or housing.

Since 2010, the nation has seen double-digit drops in homeless families (23 percent), individuals experiencing chronic homelessness (27 percent), and veteran homelessness (47 percent). While some states, such as New York, saw increases in homelessness over this time period—especially over the last year—nationwide, the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2016 fell 14 percent since 2010.

(Source: HUD)

Much as with the annual Current Population Survey report on home economics that the Census released in September, in the HUD report, all signs are pointing in the right direction. Looking back over both terms of the Obama administration, many of the gains are even greater. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of people living on the streets, in encampments, or otherwise outside the shelter system, has plunged dramatically—a drop-off of 31 percent. (Point-in-time counts do miss homeless people, as any census does. But because they employ the same methodology year over year, they are considered important and reliable trackers for how homelessness affects a community.)

The most important figures fall in the 2010–2016 range, since that span serves as a measure of the federal government’s homelessness strategy. The feds can’t take all the credit, of course: Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing are policy concepts that started at the city and community level, before the Obama administration adopted them as federal law. The work to fight homelessness is first and foremost the work of local government. But federal support from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an agency comprising senior leaders of 19 federal agencies, has helped more communities adopt and expand housing-first strategies. For Opening Doors, the Interagency Council considered the causes of homelessness for several groups—veterans, families, youth, and the chronically homeless—and tailored solutions for each category.

While the results in the report are encouraging, they raise the question: Will President-elect Trump continue the Obama administration’s efforts to stop homelessness?

“The president in this budget year, fiscal year 2017, put forward an $11 billion proposal over 10 years so that 550,000 families would get either voucher or rapid rehousing assistance, so that we could end family homelessness by 2020,” says HUD Secretary Julián Castro, referring to President Barack Obama. “No, I’m not under any illusion that that’s going to be appropriated in this budget year, but it has set a marker.”

The gains among veterans were the result of the coordination between HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Through the joint HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, the departments have distributed some 79,000 rental vouchers since 2008. Thirty-one cities have virtually ended homelessness among veterans.

“[The program for] veteran homelessness is a model that works well,” Secretary Castro says. “Congress appropriated the resources that they should have appropriated, through HUD VASH specifically.”

But dramatic changes may be coming for VA. President-elect Trump slammed this department perhaps more than any other on the campaign trail; his likely pick for VA secretary, Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, is a fierce and vocal critic of the department. One of the organizations advising President-elect Trump on that selection, Concerned Veterans for America, has been critical of HUD and VA for failing to meet their targets on ending veteran homelessness. The New York Times describes Concerned Veterans for America as “on the fringe of the veteran world,” a free-market organization supported by Charles and David Koch that aims to privatize veterans’ healthcare. (Big changes may be in the works for HUD, too.)

If the GOP-controlled Congress decides to dock non-defense discretionary spending to pay for Trump’s promised increases for defense spending, housing aid could be cut as a result. The president-elect’s “penny” plan, which would cut non-defense spending by 1 percent every year, stands to undermine housing vouchers, rental assistance, and other programs whose funding must increase to keep up with rising housing costs.

In 2010, Opening Doors set a 5-year date for ending chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness as well as a 10-year date for ending homelessness among families. But external factors have exacerbated homelessness even as the federal government has taken effective steps to curb homelessness.  

“The housing market is definitely a huge impact on the ability of people to retain stable housing and avoid the experience of homelessness,” says Matthew Doherty, the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness says. “It’s also becoming harder and harder in many of these communities for people to exit homelessness and find the places to call home that they can afford and sustain themselves in.”

Doherty adds, “In many communities, we’re also seeing more indications of a strong connection to the opioid epidemic and experiences of homelessness.”

Still, housing leaders in the current administration, including Doherty, sound positive that by coordinating with governors, mayors, and Continuum of Care leaders, the federal government can bring about an end to homelessness. Ultimately, the nation faces two homelessness crisis: one among the veterans, families, and children who are homeless now, and one among the people who are close to falling into homelessness. By continuing the successful policies of the Obama administration—by expanding housing-first and supportive-housing programs—the Trump administration can oversee further declines in homelessness.

But the Trump administration, and the Republican Party that now controls Congress and most state governments, may also take action that will drive thousands of families into despair. Taking away housing aid from desperate families that need it would quickly put a near-term goal of ending homelessness firmly out of reach.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.