Report: Nation's economic collapse triggers rise in homeless families

WASHINGTON — Record job losses and foreclosures helped push more than 170,000 families into homeless shelters in 2009, up nearly 30 percent since 2007 when the recession first gripped the nation, a government report released Wednesday shows.

While the total number of homeless people on any given night fell by 5 percent from 2008 to 2009, the number of homeless families increased for the second straight year, according to the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Throughout the course of a year, approximately 1.56 million people found themselves without a place to call home,” said Mercedes Marquez, HUD assistant secretary for community planning and development.

The report is the first comprehensive national homeless study to capture the full impact of the economic downturn. It shows how badly the recession has shaken the stability of families nationwide.

As the magnitude of the problem becomes clear, the Obama administration will unveil next week a first-ever national plan to end homelessness altogether. The plan will strengthen efforts to help homeless veterans and to make prevention of homelessness a goal for all federal agencies.

“The Obama administration is committed to ending homelessness in all its forms,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “As a nation, we appear to be doing a better job sheltering those who might otherwise be living on our streets, but clearly homelessness is impacting a greater share of families with children.”

From 2008 to 2009, the number of families in homeless shelters jumped by 7 percent, or nearly 11,000 families. And they stayed longer, averaging 36 days in shelters in 2009 compared to 30 in 2008.

A recent study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that from 2007 to 2008, the number of families who move in with others, or who “double up,” increased 8.5 percent.

“So now I think what you’re seeing is that those doubled-up families from 2007 and 2008 are starting to become homeless,” said Nan Roman, president of the homelessness alliance.

Marquez said the problem of “doubling up” increased fivefold in 2009 alone. In overcrowded living conditions, children don’t do as well in school and families lack privacy, which can lead to greater stress and health problems, she said. “These are things that concern us greatly,” Marquez said.

The report found that the average person in a homeless shelter is most likely to be a single, middle-aged man from a racial or ethnic minority. In fact, 78 percent of shelter residents were adults, 61 percent were male, 62 percent were minorities, 64 percent are in one-person households and 38 percent have a disability.

Estimates in the report are based on a national “snapshot” count of the homeless on a single night along with full-year statistics from shelters across the country. And the data does offer some good news.

For instance, the national estimate of homeless persons on a given night fell to 643,000 last year, down from more than 664,000 in 2008.

The chronic homeless population also fell from more than 10 percent from 124,000 in 2008 to nearly 111,000 last year, with all of the decline occurring among unsheltered “street people.”

Since 2006, the number of chronic homeless people _ those with long or frequent bouts of homelessness _ has fallen nearly 30 percent as the stock of permanent supportive housing increased with the additional 42,000 new beds.

In addition, the number of homeless individuals also dipped from about 415,000 in 2008 to about 405,000 last year.

A program in the stimulus bill, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, or HPRP, has helped 357,000 people by moving some from homeless shelters into their own apartments and by providing rent payments to prevent others from becoming homeless. Marquez said the impact of the program isn’t reflected in the new study, but that it should help improve the homeless problem in 2010 and 2011.

Roman, of the homelessness alliance, disagreed. She said it can take a year or more before a troubled family or individual becomes homeless, so the problem will likely worsen since the economy hasn’t bounced back.

The alliance and other homeless advocacy groups have been unable to convince Congress to increase the program’s $1.5 billion funding. Marquez said only 17 percent of HPRP money has been spent. But many of the organizations that distribute the money already have exhausted or committed their two- and three-year allocations. Some organizations were turning needy applicants away because of a funding shortage.

“We think (homelessness) is going to go up 2010 and 2011, so the question is do we have enough HPRP money to hold even on it,” Roman said.

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