U.S. Homelessness Is on the Decline ... Maybe

In one state, homelessness climbed 200 percent over the course of one year.

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." Fifty years later, we're still fighting.

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." Fifty years later, we're still fighting.

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported Thursday that there are an estimated 610,042 homeless people in the U.S., down by 3.8 percent since 2010. Along with those headline numbers, the department released a bevy of information about the state of homelessness in the U.S. U.S. News has picked through the data to find the most telling points in the government's counts.

64,060: The number of homeless people in New York City, the place with the highest number of homeless people in the country. The next biggest population is in Los Angeles, where there are an estimated 53,798 homeless. Both of those cities' homeless totals tower over the rest of the country. The place with the next largest number of homeless is Seattle/King County, Wash., with 9,106 homeless.

One in five: Roughly speaking, the share of homeless people who live in Los Angeles and New York City alone (19.3 percent). That's in part due to the sheer size of those cities, of course, but it also may be because large cities simply tend to have more shelters, says one expert. Because HUD's tallies rely in part on counts of people in shelters, where people are easier to count, cities with many shelters might have much bigger estimates than cities with fewer shelters.

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"It's much easier to count people in shelters than outside of shelters ... In cities that have more shelter space, that may be part of the explanation," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Likewise, she says, rural areas might have artificially low counts, she says, because it's harder to count people spread out in areas with few shelters.

200.7 percent: The one-year increase in homelessness in North Dakota, the state with the largest jump in homelessness from 2012 to 2013. This may have to do with the state's massive oil and gas boom, according to a HUD spokesperson.

While the state's natural resources have boosted incomes and created jobs, they may have also ironically increased homelessness, as housing growth struggles to keep up with the influx of new workers.

Then again, the huge percentage increase is also in part due to the state's relatively low homeless population. North Dakota had an estimated 688 homeless people in 2012, compared to 2,069 this year, meaning the state currently has around 1/31 the number of homeless that reside in New York City (whose population is itself roughly 12 times the size of North Dakota's population).

24 percent: The decline in homeless veterans from 2010 to 2013 – a much steeper drop than the 3.8 percent decline in broader homelessness. HUD and the Department of Veterans' Affairs have focused their energies on this population – the two departments in August dedicated nearly $8 million toward housing and other services for veterans, and on Nov. 12, the VA announced another $13.7 million. The additional money and attention the government has given to this area have paid off, Foscarinis says.

"That's the only explanation that I can think of, and it makes sense," she says. "To the extent you devote resources to addressing the problem, to addressing homelessness and housing resources, you start to solve it."

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7 percent: The decline in chronic homelessness, a measure of long-term homelessness, since 2012. The measure has also fallen by one-quarter since 2007. The administration claims those declines, along with the falling veterans' homelessness figures as a victory for the White House's 2010 "Opening Doors" program, aimed at reducing homelessness nationwide.

"Extraordinary efforts on the part of Federal agencies and our State and community partners have again led to reductions in homelessness," said Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, in a press release.

Well, maybe. For her part, Foscarinis doubts the numbers are correct.

"I think the numbers are questionable," she says. "I don't think that they can be viewed with a lot of confidence." Foscarinis characterizes the government's total count of the homeless as "far off," though she is hesitant to speculate as to what the real count might be, only that it is much higher than the government says.