Published in the New York Times on Dec. 16
Despite the economic downturn, the Obama administration has managed to keep the homeless population steady over the last four years, for which it deserves considerable credit. But many people remain at risk of finding themselves on the street, especially poor families. This means that ways must be found to enlarge underfinanced rental assistance programs that now reach only about a quarter of the low-income families that qualify.
The centerpiece of the administration’s efforts to keep homelessness in check has been an innovative $1.5 billion program, included in the $840 billion Recovery Act of 2009, that broke with traditional approaches. The program, which helped 1.3 million people, rapidly rehoused some people after they had become homeless. It also kept others off the streets with rental assistance, emergency housing, security deposits, moving expenses and other forms of temporary aid.
Beyond that, the administration focused closely on finding housing for two particularly difficult groups: the chronically homeless and homeless veterans, both of which often need mental health support and social services to live on their own. The administration says it is still committed to the goal of ending homelessness for these two groups by the end of 2015. Data released last week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, based on a survey of 3,000 cities and counties, shows that some progress is being made.
The number of homeless veterans declined by more than 17 percent between January 2009 and January of this year. The population of the chronically homeless fell by more than 19 percent between 2007 and 2012.
But while conditions may be improving for homeless individuals, they may be getting worse for families with children, who have costlier needs and therefore fewer housing options. Based on agency data, there were about 64,000 more people in families in shelters in 2011 than in 2007 — an increase of about 13 percent. During roughly the same period, the number of families with children in “worst case” housing situations — meaning that they spend more than half of their income on housing or that they live in hazardous, substandard buildings — grew to 3.3 million from 2.2 million. In other words, many of these families are just one financial setback away from the streets.
Though the stimulus money has been spent, the administration has wisely extended the homelessness prevention program, though with less financing than the scope of the problem clearly requires. In addition to putting more money into this crucial program, the administration needs to expand the rental assistance programs that could help these at-risk families find permanent housing before their only choice is between the streets and temporary shelter.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on December 17, 2012, on page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Fight Homelessness.
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