Homelessness on the Rise, More Funds Needed From Congress

Homelessness on the Rise, More Funds Needed From Congress

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Family homelessness is on the rise, and the recession and foreclosure crises are likely to drive up the numbers, say homelessness advocates during a national conference on the issue in Oakland, Calif.

As Congress currently haggles over how much funding to give to programs to help the homeless, advocates say funding is critical to address a growing homeless population.

Last month, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which organized last week’s Oakland conference, released their latest snapshot of homelessness in the country. It shows that more than 650,000 individuals experienced homelessness in 2009, a three percent increase from the year before, and homeless families were the fastest growing subgroup. There were 79,000 homeless families in 2009, a four percent increase from the year before.

Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, based in Washington, D.C., said young families, individuals aged between 18 and 24 years of age, and veterans with families face particular challenges.

“Young families are more vulnerable,” Berg said. “They are less established in the job market, and they have young children who make it hard to maintain a job.”

Women veterans, many with children, are among the growing ranks of homeless veterans, he added.

The recession, along with prolonged unemployment, is the main driver of homelessness, Berg said, but the foreclosure crisis also impacts homelessness. Families don’t go from losing their home to ending up on the streets in one step, he said, but the housing crisis is dragging down the economy.

“The bigger effect of the foreclosure crisis is it sets off a broader economic crisis that produces unemployment at the bottom of the job market that creates a lot of homelessness,” said Berg, noting that contraction in the housing industry and construction field is causing ripple effects in other sectors of the economy.

In 2009, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and six other advocacy groups issued a report to better understand the connection between homelessness and the increase in foreclosures.

 Based on interviews with shelter and transitional housing providers, the survey found that 5 percent of their clients were homeless as a result of foreclosures.

San Francisco’s own homeless count provides even finer grain data about the connection between foreclosures and homelessness. Based on its 2009 homeless count, foreclosures accounted for 1.5 percent of the city’s homeless.

Kathy Wahto, director of Serenity House of Clallam County in Port Angeles, Wash., said victims of foreclosure are not at the top of the list to become homeless. Her nonprofit organization implements a nationwide 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“They still have employment, assets and other resources. They are not at the top of my list to become homeless immediately, because many still have the resources to rent,” said Wahto, who spoke on a panel at the conference.

It’s hard to track the impact of the foreclosure crisis on homelessness because it is a “lacking indicator,” said Wahto, noting that the downward spiral can take upwards of a year. She said foreclosure is a sign that a homeowner is plagued by debts that could take a toll down the line.

“Homeowners don’t just lose their home. They usually have other debt. They are not free and clear. [Foreclosure] can in the end push some households to the brink to qualify for social services,” Wahto said.

Robert Pulster, associate director of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, said families who have lost their home to foreclosure tend to “double up” first, moving in with family and friends until they get back on their feet. He said renters living in buildings that have been foreclosed on are in a more vulnerable situation because they have fewer resources than property owners.

According to Berg of the National Alliance to End Homeless, despite the recession and the foreclosure crisis, the homeless population has not grown as quickly as homelessness advocates expected, mainly because of a $1.5 billion infusion of stimulus dollars in 2009 to fund homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing programs through 2012.

 He said rapid re-housing refers to getting “people into a real apartment as quickly as possible.”

The idea, which some call “housing first,” has been embraced by homelessness organizations in the last few years. It’s easier to address other issues such as substance abuse and employment once the family has a stable living situation, Berg said.

“You don’t end homelessness by building more shelters, but communities think that’s what you do,” said Wahto, noting that the county’s program focused on finding creative ways to offer interim housing assistance rather than building more shelters.

Since 2006, Clallam County has seen a 44 percent drop in its homeless population. 

Homelessness advocates say they fear that when the stimulus money runs out, and without additional funding, programs will have to do the same or more with less money.

President Obama has made some overtures to address the homelessness problem in his 2012 budget that takes effect in October, by increasing funding for homelessness programs to $2.37 billion. 

In this fiscal year, the president increased funding for homelessness programs to about $2 billion – a $200 million increase over the previous year.

Last Friday, a House committee introduced a bill that would roll back that funding to 2010 levels. Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness said that means funding will be maintained for homeless people who received housing in 2010, but “the new House bill won’t have any money to do anything for new homeless people.”