WASHINGTON — The number of chronically homeless people declined by 15% last year, according to a first-of-its-kind government report released Tuesday, though officials cautioned that part of the decline may be attributable to better counting methods.
Nationwide, almost 1.6 million people were homeless and found shelter last year, the report found.
"We're very encouraged by this," said Steven Preston, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, whose department released the report. "We want to present the facts as we see them, and the facts are really good. . . . We are making progress."
The report represents the first time that homelessness has been tracked over the course of an entire year. Prior estimates, starting in 2005, were "point-in-time" snapshots that provided a count of the homeless population on a particular night.
The new measure will enable authorities to more effectively allocate funding for homeless programs, officials said. The government wants to make this an annual report, a baseline to measure homelessness, they said.
The report defines a chronically homeless person as a disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for at least a year or has been homeless at least four times in the previous three years.
The report found that of the nearly 1.6 million homeless who found shelter, either in emergency housing or in transitional living programs, 77% were in "central cities" and the rest in suburban and rural areas. Families with children (typically a mother with two or three children) constitute 30% of this population; minorities make up 64%; and 13% are veterans.
Advocates for the homeless warn that counting the population poses challenges. For instance, homeless individuals may not want to be found. In addition, fallout from the housing crisis and economic woes may not have been evident during the time of the study, which was conducted from Oct. 1, 2006 through Sept. 30, 2007.
"Families who have been foreclosed upon -- they downsize to a cheaper apartment, move in with friends or relatives, move into an RV and do everything they can before they are on the street," said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It's a two-year downward cycle they're going to be experiencing. There hasn't been a tidal wave yet."
Before the government began implementing the use of local data systems in 2005 to better track people's recourse to shelters, such as when and how frequently they use services, the best big-picture count of the homeless came from the "point-in-time" estimates based on volunteers and field workers fanning out in a specific area, armed with notepads.
These snapshots, which measure how many people are homeless over one night, are still collected. But they do not provide the best estimate, say HUD officials and homeless advocates, since people go in and out of homelessness.
Even the new data systems -- called "homeless management information systems"-- can't account for those who don't want to be counted. They track only those who use shelters, though officials think that, over the course of a year, most homeless people -- even those who largely "go it alone" -- will need such services.
"People's methods for doing these estimates are improving," said Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania social scientist who helped analyze the report's data. "Some of the count is real; some of it is better counting methods."
In California, the decline in the number of chronically homeless from 2005 to 2007 was nearly 33%, according to the report. The statewide drop in the total homeless population was about 15%.
According to the report, the chronically homeless population in what HUD calls the Los Angeles city and county "continuum of care" -- which excludes Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena but includes the rest of the county -- has decreased by more than 35% over two years, from nearly 34,900 to about 22,400. The total number of homeless decreased from about 83,300 to about 68,600, the report found.
"It's quite true that not every single homeless person has been counted in this study," said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "It's not perfect. But the most important thing is it's trending downward. It's encouraging that even with high housing prices, high fuel prices, high food prices, we could still make this kind of progress in the system."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Decline in the number of chronically homeless in California from 2005 to 2007
Drop in the state's total homeless population
Drop in chronically homeless population in Los Angeles County (excluding Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena)
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development