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Government Launching New Initiative To End Homelessness

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WASHINGTON — Better coordination among the many agencies that try to help homeless people find employment and health care as well as stable places to live is a central component for reaching the Obama administration's ambitious goal of ultimately ending homelessness.

A proposal announced Tuesday at the White House by Cabinet officers, called "Opening Doors," suggests a major shift in the federal approach to homelessness. The effort would be driven mainly by integration of support services and applying state and local models at the federal level, according to the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The effort calls for ending chronic homelessness – where people cycle through shelters and hospitals – and homelessness among military veterans in five years, and for ending homelessness among families and children by 2020. The plan aims to eventually end all types of homelessness.

Funding for the effort includes some of the $2 billion in stimulus money allocated last year to the 19 federal agencies in the council. The money, used for a variety of services related to the homeless, is in addition to $3.79 billion budgeted for such services in 2010.

The Obama administration is seeking $4.2 billion for the council's agencies in the 2011 fiscal year, including money specific to the new plan's initiatives, said Jason Kravitz, a council spokesman.

Providing the resources to end homelessness will be cheaper for taxpayers rather than continuing to have people cycle through shelters and hospitals, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said.

"Homelessness is a preventable tragedy," Donovan said, "a tragedy we can solve."

Vouchers for more than 2 million low-income families and affordable rental units for another 1 million low-income households are planned or are already being implemented.

The 2011 budget expands services for mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment. In addition to finding better employment opportunities for the homeless, services are offered specifically for homeless women who are veterans.

Officials have simplified applications for students seeking financial aid for college and have improved the ability to quickly identify homeless people with disabilities. A streamlined homeless program in HUD, now with a hot line, will focus on providing permanent housing.

The proposal leaves final details for collaboration to states and communities. Donovan said the homeless would benefit from more ideas outside of the nation's capital.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the plan sets a reasonable time frame for a problem that is "well within our capacity" to solve. She said she expects the Obama administration's plan to yield results similar to those of the Bush administration, under which chronic homelessness fell 30 percent since 2006.

"When you do a plan, you plan for ending," Roman said. "So it's to set up a system that really doesn't tolerate long-term homelessness."

Volunteers counted 643,000 homeless people, sheltered and on the streets, during one given night in January 2009, according to the HUD's annual report to Congress. The report released last week also showed that while the number of homeless people dropped in 2009, the number of families spending at least one night in a shelter increased to about 170,000.

Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis said the homeless need help in preparing for meaningful jobs. The department would use more than $24 million as part of stimulus money to provide job training to about 14,000 homeless veterans, she said, with 97 grants going to 31 states.

The "downward spiral" for veterans into homelessness has begun to break down, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said one initiative involving her department will help homeless families with housing, subsidies and child care while another will provide permanent supportive housing to 4,000 people, with health care services paid for by Medicaid.

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Online:

Full report available at http://www.usich.gov

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