Council Explores Progress on Homelessness and Federal Action Going Forward

Just ahead of reporting remarkable advancements in ending homelessness across America, Obama Administration officials who make up the Council met on October 15, 2014, to measure the progress in the work of USICH and its partners, to discuss the data, and to chart the path forward to advance the goals of Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, presiding over his first meeting as Council chair, gaveled the meeting to order saying, “I’ve had the privilege of serving on a lot of task forces over the course of my career. I’ve seen ones that have worked well and ones that have haven’t worked so well. This is a group that has worked incredibly well.” Secretary Perez credited the success of the Council to three things: having a dedicated team at USICH and around the Administration singularly focused and working on this issue daily; the steadfast leadership of the Council; and most importantly the focus on metrics and accountability. The plan has metrics and accountability, Secretary Perez said of Opening Doors, adding “we value what we measure, and we measure what we value.”

“We have an excellent Federal plan,” said Laura Zeilinger, USICH Executive Director. “The feedback that we’ve gotten is that it is very helpful for creating a framework for States and communities to think about how to have a well-rounded approach that is going to advance efforts to prevent and end homelessness.”

Joining Secretary Perez and Zeilinger were HUD Secretary Julián Castro, VA Secretary Robert McDonald, and OMB Director and former Council Chair Shaun Donovan.  Also in attendance were HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr, White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz, White House Secretary of the Cabinet Broderick Johnson, as well as representatives from the Departments of Justice, Education, Agriculture, Interior, Defense, Commerce, and Energy.

2014 PIT Count Results

Highlighting metrics and accountability, the Council received a first-hand look at the data that was reported in the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, which enumerates the number of people experiencing homelessness who are sheltered and unsheltered on a single night.  Ann Oliva, HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs, provided the briefing on the report which found 578,424 individuals experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2014. This represents an overall drop in homelessness of 10 percent since the 2010 launch of Opening Door: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.  The data also shows a 25 percent reduction in all unsheltered homelessness during the same time.

“This is a direct result of the strategies in Opening Doors, like implementation of the Housing First approach, HUD-VASH, and prioritization of people experiencing chronic homelessness within permanent supportive housing units,” noted Oliva.

Veteran homelessness is down 33 percent since the launch of Opening Doors, including an incredible 43 percent reduction in the number of Veterans and their families living on the streets.

“This work is a testament to the hard, hard work done by VA, HUD, USICH, and community partners,” Oliva said. “It’s really about targeting the resources that we have in the smartest way possible so that we’re reaching the most vulnerable people,” she added, noting the continued improvement in data collection.

The report finds that fewer families are experiencing homelessness, down 15 percent since 2010, including a 53 percent reduction in families who are living unsheltered. The data also shows, however, that the sizes of families experiencing homelessness are getting bigger. When you look at the 2014 PIT data, together with the Department of Education’s data on school-age children experiencing homelessness and HUD’s Worst Case Housing Needs Study, the numbers show that while fewer families are living on the streets or in shelters, they still face housing crises and a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Data on youth homelessness continues to improve, and this year’s PIT counts achieved greater success than in previous ones in identifying hard-to-find-youth using a variety of new tools and strategies. Still, Federal and community partners are working to capture a more confident baseline for the number of youth experiencing homelessness at a point in time.

A Deep Dive on Chronic Homelessness

The 2014 PIT count data shows a 21 percent reduction in chronic homelessness since 2010. People who experience chronic homelessness (defined as individuals with disabilities who have experienced homelessness continuously for a year or more or who have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years) are extremely vulnerable. Of all populations, people who experience chronic homelessness are the most likely to live unsheltered. About 63 percent of people experiencing chronic homelessness are unsheltered.

Even with tremendous progress since 2010, the effects of sequestration in 2013 resulted in a slower decline last year—2.5 percent between 2013 and 2014—which is a low percentage when compared to previous years.  

“We’re at a critical juncture with respect to the goal of ending chronic homelessness,” said Richard Cho, USICH Senior Policy Director. When Opening Doors was initially launched, chronic homelessness was seen as among the easiest to achieve— having had the support of previous Administrations, a good stock of permanent supportive housing inventory, and vastly improved technology to track data.  However, with that improved technology, Council agencies and communities were able to see that the inventory wasn’t serving those most in need, according to Cho. Inventory was concentrated in the North and East although southern and western States also had very high needs. In addition, they realized that estimates of chronic homelessness were not accounting for those who cycle on and off the streets and in and out of institutions. Most importantly, requests to Congress to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing have remained unfunded.

The Council has taken bold steps to make increased progress: leveraging opportunities afforded by the Affordable Care Act, incentivizing the prioritization of existing permanent supportive housing more wisely, increasing technical assistance to communities, and requesting historic investments from Congress that would not only end chronic homelessness but also save taxpayer dollars. The President’s 2015 Budget specifically requests $301 million for the creation of 37,000 new units of permanent supportive housing—enough to end chronic homelessness in 2016.

Cho also explored with the Council the economic impact of ending chronic homelessness, stating: “ending chronic homelessness is not only the right thing to do for people, it’s also the fiscally smart thing to do.”

Detailing the overwhelming evidence that permanent supportive housing lowers public costs, especially in health care, Cho highlighted a study in Seattle that found a 50 percent decrease in emergency services costs after people experiencing chronic homelessness were connected to permanent supportive housing for just one year. Costs related to law enforcement and incarcerations have also seen precipitous drops where chronic homelessness has been prioritized.

“To me,” said VA Secretary Robert McDonald, “the really big news here is that the rate of return on investment is outstanding.”

Former Council chair Shaun Donovan, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and lifelong homeless advocate, praised the progress to date, noting that it’s important to “tell the story that when government works together to make tough, strategic choices, we can really solve big problems in this country.”