Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday November 19th, 2014, 11:05am

HUD: Homelessness On The Decline In Illinois

Homelessness in Illinois has dropped 8.9 percent since 2010, new figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) show.

There were 13,107 homeless people in Illinois as of this January, down from 14,395 in 2010, according to HUD's annual 'point-in-time' homelessness estimates released late last month. The numbers are based on a one-night count of homeless individuals in shelters and on the street in January.

Over the past year, homelessness in Illinois fell 2.4 percent, HUD's count showed. Notably, homelessness among unaccompanied children and youth in the state decreased by more than 200 between 2013 and 2014.

Nationwide, 578,424 people were homeless during that one-night period in January, representing a 10 percent drop from 2010.

"As a nation, we are successfully reducing homelessness in this country, especially for those who have been living on our streets as a way of life," HUD Secretary Julian Castro said in a news release. "There is still a tremendous amount of work ahead of us, but it's clear our strategy is working and we're going to push forward till we end homelessness as we've come to know it."  

Local housing advocates, however, say HUD's assessment report is not truly reflective of the homelessness problem in Illinois and elsewhere.

For example, the count does not capture homeless individuals doubling up in a home with others temporarily.

"The way most families and most unaccompanied homeless youth experience homelessness is not being on the street or in a shelter, but just getting by moving around -- although a lot of them may eventually burn all their bridges and end up on the street or in a shelter," noted Julie Dworkin, director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. 

Homeless student numbers from public schools systems, which track individuals living temporarily with others, paint a larger picture of the local housing problem, Dworkin explained. 

According to statewide public school data, 59,112 Illinois students, including 22,144 in Chicago, were homeless during the 2013-2014 academic year, a 7.7 percent increase from the previous school year. Over that same time period, the Chicago Public Schools system saw its homeless student population tick up 18.6 percent.

Additionally, Dworkin noted that a 2013 status report on homelessness by the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed that the number of homeless families in Chicago increased 11.4 percent between September 2012 and August 2013.

Anti-homelessness resources tend to disproportionately target chronically homeless individuals, which could explain the increase in homelessness among other groups, Dworkin said.

"That's been, probably for the last 10 years, the emphasis at the federal level," she said. "We just keep taking a triage approach, like trying to get the most vulnerable and most needy people and concentrate all the resources there, while homelessness is growing for other populations."

At the national level, the number of chronically homeless individuals declined 3 percent over the past year and 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to HUD's count.

Bob Palmer, policy director with Housing Action Illinois, said federal anti-homelessness efforts have also focused on veterans, and progress has been made to address that population.

HUD's report showed an 11 percent drop nationwide among homeless veterans over the past year and a 33 percent decrease between 2009 and 2014.

To tackle homelessness more broadly in Illinois, Dworkin and Palmer said lifting the state's minimum wage is important. Among other recommendations, Springfield lawmakers should boost resources for an underfunded state homeless-prevention program that provides one-time rental or utility assistance to keep people in their homes.

"In addition to raising the minimum wage, protecting the state budget is a main policy priority at this point," Palmer added, noting that the upcoming expiration of the state's 2011 temporary income tax hike could mean deep cuts to anti-homelessness services.

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), meanwhile, could help curb homelessness in the city by releasing more available housing vouchers, the experts said. A recent fiscal analysis by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found that the CHA issued an average of 13,534 fewer housing vouchers than HUD funded in each year between 2008 and 2012.

"The CHA definitely should be maxing out their spending in terms of issuing vouchers," Dworkin said. "The need is up, obviously."

Palmer added that HUD is currently in the process of renegotiating Moving to Work (MTW) agreements, which could require the CHA and other participating housing agencies to increase their voucher utilization rates in the future. HUD's MTW program gives public housing authorities the flexibility to come up with and test various approaches to providing quality, affordable housing for low-income families.

"We are looking for action both at the local and the federal level to get the Chicago Housing Authority and the other Moving to Work housing authorities around the country to be better using their resources in terms of vouchers, but also targeting their other resources for extremely low-income households," Palmer said. 

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