In 2007, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) submitted an Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, a first-of-its-kind study providing baseline data on homelessness in America.
The report marked the first time since 1984 that HUD had reported the number of homeless people in the United States.
Dennis Culhane, a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice and the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy, was a co-principal investigator of the initial AHAR, and each report submitted since. The most recent findings, released last fall, reported that homelessness in America is on the decline.
Between 2012 and 2013, the number of homeless Americans dropped by nearly 4 percent, or 23,740 people. Since 2007, the number of homeless individuals has decreased by 9 percent, or 61,846 people.
Culhane credits the drop in numbers to an increased federal focus on placing people who are chronically homeless and living on the street in subsidized housing units with support services. The initiative began with the Bush administration in 2003, and has continued through the Obama administration. President George W. Bush and Congress funded around 50,000 Section 8 housing vouchers, and the Obama administration and Congress have added another 60,000, primarily targeted to veterans.
“All total, you have 110,000 new vouchers out there in the last 10 years targeted to chronic homeless people, most of whom are unsheltered,” Culhane says. “That’s a pretty big investment.”
Homelessness among veterans has declined every year since 2010. Between 2012 and 2013, veteran homelessness declined by 8 percent; between 2009 and 2013, it decreased by 24 percent.
The Obama administration has made fighting homelessness among veterans one of its top priorities. Culhane, who is also director of research for the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), says funding to reduce veteran homelessness has increased from $400 million when Obama took office, to $1.4 billion this year. He says there is no doubt that a significant portion of the reduction in the number of veterans who are homeless is due to an increased focus from the president and Congress.
In addition, the VA started a homeless prevention and rapid rehousing program two years ago—designed by Penn faculty and researchers at the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans—that targets people who are experiencing crisis homelessness. The program pays for a portion of rent arrears, debt clearance, and a relocation grant consisting of first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, plus six months of rent.
“It’s not a long-term voucher, but it’s intended to help [veterans] dig out from under a hole and put [them] on more solid footing going forward,” Culhane says. Congress provided $300 million for the program this year and Culhane says they expect to serve 80,000 veterans.
Data for the AHAR is collected through an information system that tracks every entry and exit from a community’s shelter system, and boots-on-the-ground observation. On the last Wednesday of every January, field workers in close to 3,000 different municipalities count the number of people in unsheltered locations, such as in parks, bridges, cars, abandoned buildings, or on the street.
On a single night in January 2013, there were 610,042 people experiencing homelessness in the United States, including 394,698 people who were homeless in sheltered locations and 215,344 people living in unsheltered locations. More than one-third of all homeless people were living in unsheltered locations, and nearly one-quarter were children under the age of 18.
Of the approximately 15,000 homeless people in Pennsylvania, around 5,000 are in Philadelphia. Culhane says the number of street homeless in the city was cut almost in half between 2000 and 2005, but has remained relatively steady since then.
The federal budget battles have made the fight against homelessness more difficult, as there has not been any growth in non-veteran homeless programs.
However, Culhane says Philadelphia is fortunate because Sister Mary Scullion’s Project HOME has been effective in raising private funds for capital development of housing units, and Mayor Michael Nutter has been successful in negotiating for more housing vouchers.
“So despite the federal picture, there is going to be some growth in the supported housing here in Philadelphia over the next few years,” he says.
Originally published on January 16, 2014