With Homeless Prevention Program Expiring, Homeless Rates Remain Ominous

A new report finds that, although homelessness in the U.S. shrank ever so slightly over the past two years, a combination of rising housing prices, low wages for the poor and a soon-to-expire federal program means it’s hardly on the decline.

Depression-era homeless lined up for assistance in Seattle. MSCUA, University of Washington Libraries

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For those of us who would call it a steal to rent a studio apartment for under $1,000, consider this: Last year the average annual salary of the nation’s working poor was $9,400 — up only $100 since 2009. There’s not a single county in the U.S. where this sum could support a prolonged stay in even the cheapest room on the market.

These numbers, found in a report released last week by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), help explain why 24 states and the District of Columbia saw an increase in homelessness between 2009 and 2011, despite the country’s overall homeless population shrinking slightly over the same period. Though about 7,000 Americans who lacked a home two years ago now have one, over 635,000 people — or about 21 in 10,000 — remain homeless nationwide. Of those, two in five go nightly without shelter.

It could have been worse. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), a $1.5-billion effort created as a part of President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009, did provide aid to several hundred thousand people at risk of losing their homes. But with the program slated to expire this year — and its resources already used up in many recipient communities — any progress, however marginal, is shaky at best.

There’s been an effort around the country to implement programs similar to HPRP at the local level, according to NAEH president Nan Roman.

“But we’ve run into no appetite for it on Capitol Hill,” Roman added. Without major support from the federal government, communities don’t have much money to work with.

Homeless veterans have fared best, dropping at a rate 10 times higher than other homeless people. It bears noting, however, that initiatives to aid veterans have always enjoyed greater political favor than assistance for those who haven’t served in the military.

A number of both local and national factors affect homeless rates, but the primary cause is that many people simply cannot afford to pay for housing where they live. Over 6 million households around the country spend more than half their incomes on rent alone — even though the federal government’s unofficial standard for fair-market housing prices stands at no more than 30 percent of a family’s income.

If someone earning $9,400 put 30 percent of her salary toward rent, it would mean her unit must cost no more than $235 a month.

“And we know how likely that is,” said Roman, “anywhere in the country.”

In some states the average wage for the working poor has actually decreased — sometimes as much as 8 percent, as was the case with Nevada and Wyoming. Both states saw their homeless populations increase over the past two years, with Wyoming’s more than doubling.

“Income has been going down, with unemployment increasing…and rent has been going up,” said Roman, who noted that although unemployment has dropped overall in the U.S., it remains constant among the lower classes.

Foreclosures have also been on the rise, affecting the country disproportionately. While California and New York have enjoyed an over 10-percent drop in foreclosures, other states have not been so lucky. Montana, which suffered the second-largest increase in homelessness, saw its foreclosure rate almost triple. In Nevada, one in 11 housing units face foreclosure.

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Tags: homelessness

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