Government reports drop in number of homeless

November 21, 2013: 4:52 PM ET
homelessness decline
A new government report shows that the number of people living on the streets is on the decline this year.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

The number of homeless Americans is on the decline, the government announced Thursday.

Roughly 610,000 homeless people were living in emergency shelters, transitional housing or unsheltered locations during a count taken on a single night in January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported. That's down 4% from last year and 6% from 2010, when the recession was still going strong.

Big drops in veteran homelessness contributed to the overall decline, HUD said, thanks to increased participation in a federal program providing rental vouchers to veterans. The number of homeless veterans fell 24% from 2010, the housing agency found.

The government has also been making a big push to help the chronically homeless, defined as those who have been continually homeless for a year or more or have been homeless at least four times in the last three years. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of chronically homeless fell 16%.

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These findings were met with skepticism from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, however. The nonprofit aid organization said HUD's report depicts an "incomplete picture" because it only counts homeless people in HUD programs and shelters, and those living outside.

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"This number excludes millions of Americans who are without housing and living doubled up or in motels because HUD programs are full," NLCHP said in a statement. "[W]hile ongoing efforts to end homelessness are having an impact on individuals fortunate enough to obtain services, we do not believe that the numbers are in fact declining."

HUD said it's impossible to count people who are living with others or staying in motels, so it calculated the most accurate estimate it could based on the data available, which it collects from more than 3,000 cities and counties.

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And HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan worries that the progress HUD has made could be quickly derailed if Congress doesn't provide adequate funding for the agency's homeless programs.

"We're making real and significant progress to reduce homelessness in this country and now is not the time to retreat from doing what we know works," Donovan said in a statement.

Despite overall declines, homelessness still remains high in many areas, especially large cities. New York City and Los Angeles, for example, account for 20% of the nation's entire homeless population, and the number of homeless people in those cities shot up 13% and 27%, respectively, last year.

A separate report last month from the National Center for Homeless Education, which is funded by the Department of Education, showed that student homelessness hit a record high -- finding 1.2 million homeless students during the 2011-12 academic year.