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Number Of Homeless Declines Again, But Gains Aren't Universal

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. New U.S. data reports a drop in the number of homeless people — but not in New York and other states.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. New U.S. data reports a drop in the number of homeless people — but not in New York and other states.

The number of homeless people in the U.S. shrank from 2012 to 2013, according to a large government study that found the number of veterans and others who are homeless declined for the third straight year. But homeless numbers rose in New York and other states, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The study also found that nearly 20 percent of homeless people were in either New York City (11 percent of the U.S. total) or Los Angeles (9 percent).

The HUD study uses data from a count conducted by U.S. shelters on a single night, in which they reported how many people were using their facilities, and how many were left without shelter. For the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the data was collected last January.

The tally found that 610,042 people were homeless on that night, reflecting a drop of nearly 4 percent from 2012 to 2013, the agency says. Of that number, 36 percent — 222,197 people — were in families, representing a drop of 7 percent for that group.

More than a third of all homeless people (35 percent) were living in spots such as abandoned buildings and cars, or under bridges, the report says. As with all the data we're mentioning, that number includes children; nearly a quarter of America's homeless are under 18, according to HUD.

The HUD report saw continued progress from recent efforts to help two groups: military veterans and people who are chronically homeless.

"Based on data reported by more than 3,000 cities and counties, last January's one-night estimate reveals a 24 percent drop in homelessness among veterans," according to a HUD news release, "and a 16 percent reduction among individuals experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness since 2010."

In terms of changes in the homeless population in America, here's a breakdown from the study:

  • From 2007 to 2013, homelessness rose in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
  • The largest one-year increases from 2012 were in New York (7,864 people), followed by California (5,928), South Carolina (1,629), Massachusetts (1,528), and Maine (623).
  • The largest decreases since 2012 were in Florida (7,308) and Colorado (7,014), followed by Texas (4,437), Georgia (3,545), and Washington (2,744).
  • In announcing the report Thursday, officials credited the "Opening Doors" program, which pairs federal agencies with local and state initiatives, for helping to reduce the numbers of people who are chronically homeless, as well as the number of veterans who are homeless.

    The advocacy group National Alliance to End Homelessness says that many small groups deserve some credit, as well.

    "Communities across the country are to be commended," the organization said in its reaction to today's HUD release. "Federal funding sources dedicated to homelessness have not increased appreciably, with the exception of dollars targeted specifically toward veterans. Instead, it is local providers and local communities implementing effective strategies and targeting resources more efficiently."

    According to HUD, the pairing of housing with support programs that provide aid in dealing with mental illness, substance abuse and other issues "not only ends homelessness for these vulnerable individuals, but also saves the taxpayer money by interrupting a costly cycle of emergency room visits, detoxes, and even jail terms."

    "If we're going to end homelessness as we know it, we need a continued bipartisan commitment from Congress to break the cycle trapping our most vulnerable citizens between living in a shelter or a life on the streets," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who urged lawmakers to maintain their support for "proven strategies that are making a real difference."

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    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.