This week communities across the country will rally elected officials, service providers and volunteers to conduct local homeless counts, a measure of the number of people experiencing homelessness across the nation. These counts are required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) every other year as part of a community's application for federal homeless assistance funds.
Prior to the recession we had turned the corner on homelessness, finally beginning to reduce the number. From 2005 - when the first count was federally mandated - to 2007, homelessness declined by an average of ten percent in the nation. From 2007 to 2008, homelessness stayed flat.
That has now changed. High unemployment and increasing deep poverty are driving the number of homeless people up in many places. With the onset of the recession and steep cuts to state budgets, it is suspected that homelessness may reverse its course, pushing more people onto the streets and into shelter.
But steps have been taken to reverse this trend. As a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Congress and President Obama created the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). This program is intended to help the most financially vulnerable avoid or escape homelessness. The $1.5 billion program provides help paying for housing and negotiating with landlords, as well as case management and other services to help families get back on their feet. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (Alliance) projected that without federal intervention, another 1.5 million people would experience homelessness over the course of two years as a result of the recession; HPRP is expected to help 600,000 people.
The 2010 count marks the first opportunity to assess the impact of this stimulus program. The trend of the numbers may reveal clues as to how to best spend assistance resources, direct funds, and evaluate the program.
More importantly, these counts are a reminder that homelessness is a problem far from solved - and there has never been a more urgent time to address this great American tragedy. As all Americans struggle through this recession, we must not forget those most vulnerable to the instability of the economy.