Homelessness on the decline

Trend could be affected by upcoming cuts in federal programs

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COEUR d'ALENE - A recent report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows a significant decline in homelessness nationwide - a trend that is also playing out locally.

But that trend could be affected by upcoming cuts in federal funding for programs that serve homeless or near-homeless populations.

Based on data reported by more than 3,000 cities and counties, the HUD report reveals a 24 percent drop in homelessness among veterans and a 16 percent reduction among individuals experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness since 2010.

HUD's estimate also found the largest decline in the number of families experiencing homelessness since the department began measuring homelessness in a standard manner in 2005.

The housing agency conducts an annual "point-in-time" estimate to measure the scope of homelessness on a single night in January of each year.

In Idaho, the point-in-time count for 2013 showed that 1,781 people were homeless. Of that total, 694 homeless people were counted in Boise, and the remaining 1,087 were counted in the rest of Idaho.

Those numbers represent a 24 percent decrease in homeless people since 2010.

Jeff Conroy, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, said the local picture is similar.

"We have had four years of declining homelessness," he said.

In 2010, the Obama administration launched its Opening Doors program, the nation's first strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. It is a coordinated effort across 19 federal agencies to end veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015, and to end homelessness among children, families, and youth by 2020.

Unfortunately, the funding for many of the programs responsible for the successful decrease are beginning to dry up. Federal stimulus money has ended, and the sequester that started in March of this year has also taken a bite out of the funding.

A day after announcing the successful reduction in homelessness nationwide, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced a 5 percent cut in funding for transitional housing programs nationwide.

"In recent years we have made great progress in reducing homelessness, especially among veterans and people who are chronically homeless. Now is not the time to retreat from doing what we know is working," Donovan said in a press release. "We shouldn't be cutting our budget on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society."

At the national level, HUD estimates the cut could impact 100,000 homeless people, but Conroy said locally the cuts only amount to roughly $10,000. It's rumored that another 5 percent reduction may take place as well.

Conroy said St. Vincent de Paul is making some changes over the next two years that he thinks will offset those cuts.

Currently the transitional housing program is a two-year program designed to provide temporary housing until permanent housing can be found.

"Now it's going to turn into a six-month program," Conroy said, adding that recent studies have shown that people who stay shorter amounts of time in temporary housing, before transitioning to permanent housing, have a higher success rate.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword though," Conroy said. "There are some people who really do need two years to make the transition."

Conroy said the rental and utility assistance programs will also be cut back, and people using the emergency shelters will be limited to a 30-day maximum.

He explained the assistance programs are designed to keep people from becoming homeless at a time when the working poor - people with double incomes who still cannot make ends meet - appears to be increasing in North Idaho.

"It's cheaper to prevent homelessness than it is to fix it," Conroy said.

That's why, Conroy said, it makes sense for St. Vincent de Paul to keep up its focus on preventing the problem.

"We are not as bad off as some of the bigger cities," he said. "We are still working toward continuing that downward trend."

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