Homelessness declines overall; problems persist in West

Cathy Bussewitz
Associated Press

Honolulu — Homelessness is declining overall in the U.S., but there are cities and states where homelessness is on the rise, according to new data from the federal government.

A lack of affordable housing and growing problems with opioid addiction are fueling the problem in many cities in the West, experts said Thursday.

“There’s so much that we can be proud of out there in terms of progress,” said Julián Castro, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a conference call about the department’s report Thursday.

But on a recent cold night in Washington D.C., Castro counted 10 people who spent the night on park benches outside, and he said there are similar scenes in every community across the country.

“Men and women like them aren’t just visible reminders of public policy challenges,” Castro said. “They’re human beings who deserve a permanent home to call their own.”

In Hawaii, where homelessness has been increasing, Gov. David Ige’s administration has used money made available after Ige declared a state of emergency to accelerate the development of affordable housing and shelters. Honolulu banned sitting and lying down on sidewalks in parts of the city including the tourist hotspot Waikiki, and Hawaii is investing time to ensure that along with enforcing bans and developing housing, there are integrated services, said Scott Morishige, Ige’s homelessness coordinator.

“It’s not enough to just do enforcement actions on public lands without services to help people get connected to shelter or to longer term housing,” Morishige said. “You don’t want to just move people from one area to another.”

Across the country, there were nearly 550,000 homeless people counted in 2016, according to the report. Homelessness declined 14 percent nationwide since 2010, the year President Barack Obama launched Opening Doors, a program urging communities to have a plan in place to prevent and reduce homelessness. During that time, veteran homelessness fell 47 percent.

Officials hope communities apply what they’ve learned helping veterans to other groups with high rates of homelessness.

New York City had the highest number of homeless people, followed by Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego, according to the report. San Francisco, San Jose and Las Vegas also were high on the list.

“We have seen spikes in unsheltered homelessness along the West Coast,” Castro said.

“Part of it is related to rental affordability,” Castro added, speaking about Los Angeles. “We have seen rents spike significantly.”

The federal government released the numbers after volunteers across the country counted homeless people in their local areas. The volunteers fanned out across communities in January, interviewing people they found living outside, on the street, in shelters or in transitional housing. Some advocates for the homeless feel the volunteer-run count underestimates the total, because many homeless people aren’t reached or they don’t want to admit to being homeless.