Defining 'Homelessness Down'

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David McNew / Getty

A homeless man sorts his possessions at his encampment on a downtown sidewalk in Los Angeles

At a time when Americans are dealing with rising food and fuel prices, slowing jobs and soaring home foreclosures, is it really possible that homelessness is on the decline? Perhaps, but it depends on your meaning of the word homeless.

According to a report given to Congress on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), overall homeless numbers, taken from a one-day national count in January, were down 12% from 2005 to 2007, to just under 672,000 people, most of whom were on the streets only temporarily. Chronic homelessness is down even more, almost 30% lower than in 2005, from 175,000 to fewer than 125,000.

There is a rather large asterisk on the new data, however, the result of an ongoing effort to more narrowly define who is actually considered homeless. This is the third annual national HUD count, and in previous years, some cities had been counting families who were living two families to an apartment, for example, or those living in RVs, as homeless. This year, they weren't. This count, say the report's authors, is the most successful to date in tallying only those who were actually in shelters or on the streets — the official HUD definition of a homeless person.

This has advocates like Michael Stoops, the acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, saying that the rosy numbers are being produced in part for political effect in an election year. "It's kind of premature to say that there's less homeless people now because of all the great things that HUD and the Bush Administration are doing," he says. "Our grass-roots networks around the country haven't seen this kind of difference."

Of course, it's an advocate's job to keep the pressure on government by saying that the problem is still large and still needs attention. And even HUD secretary Steve Preston sounded a note of caution, saying in a release on Tuesday that there is a "long way to go to find a more lasting solution for those struggling with homelessness every day." Where the two sides disagree is whether a family of four who lost their home to the bank and is now couch-surfing with relatives should be considered homeless.

So why keep these vulnerable families out of the count? It's partially about the power of positive thinking. The number crunchers leading the federal fight believe that as long as Americans continue to perceive homelessness as an implacable problem, they'll never muster the will to help. But if the government can show that the numbers are actually relatively small — like the 125,000 chronic homeless they are now counting — then the public might just be up for tackling the issue.

Positive thinking is key to Housing First, which since 2000 has been the main innovation in President Bush's fight against homelessness. Basically, the idea is to identify the big users of government shelters and services and show voters that you can slowly herd them into permanent housing. With its emphasis on tangible gains and more rigorous data, it might as well be called No Transient Left Behind. And it has proven hugely popular with local politicians, like San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who can boast about their measurable, if small, progress.

Dennis Culhane, the University of Pennsylvania professor who co-authored Tuesday's HUD report, says that Housing First is working. "What these data show," he told me, "is that when we make a targeted investment strategy focused on chronic homelessness, we can actually make measurable improvement."

Culhane says he's against expanding the HUD definition of homelessness. "There's a very large housing problem in this country," he says. "But shoehorning new people into the homeless category isn't going to make a hill of beans of difference. It's only going to dilute what we're doing." He points to the U.S. budget for homelessness, which is just $1.5 billion a year. That's barely enough to help fund the Housing First push; it's not going to bail out families caught up in the foreclosure crisis.

Culhane and HUD will win this argument for now. A bill supported by Stoops and other advocates that would broaden the federal definition of homelessness is stuck in committee in the House this week and is unlikely, Stoops says, to emerge intact.

But Stoops isn't wrong. If $1.5 billion isn't enough to help the victims of foreclosure as well as the people pushing shopping carts or sleeping in shelters, then the long-term solution doesn't lie in redefining who is actually homeless until there is a small enough number to be served by the budget. The answer lies in getting enough funding to help all of those who are, particularly in this brutal economic cycle, facing the prospect of having a job and a family but no home. Enough money to meet the challenge: that would be truly good news, no matter how you define it.