WASHINGTON -- A vigorous effort to house the homeless has been countered somewhat by a sluggish economy.
The federal government and local communities have greatly increased the number of beds available to the homeless over the last four years, either through emergency shelters or through government-subsidized apartments and houses. But the struggling economy contributed to the number of homeless people in the United States remaining stable between January 2011 and January 2012.
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The biggest drop occurred with veterans while homelessness within families increased slightly, according to the latest national estimates.
Each January, thousands of workers with local governments and nonprofit agencies fan out across the country to count the number of homeless people living in shelters and on the streets during a specific 24-hour period. The latest count estimates the number of homeless at 633,782, according to the Housing and Urban Development Department. The year before, the number stood at slightly more than 636,000.
Within those numbers was a more encouraging trend: The percentage of homeless veterans as well as those homeless for more than a year each dropped by about 7 percent. Agencies are focusing their dollars on getting the long-term homeless into permanent housing and then providing them with support services such as counseling and job training.
The Obama administration has set of goal of eliminating veterans' homelessness and chronic homelessness by the end of 2015.
"This report continues a trend that clearly indicates we are on the right track in the fight to end homelessness among veterans," said Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Advocates welcomed the numbers, but said they showed there's still a long way to go to meet the administration's goal.
"It's great that we made progress ... but we're obviously not going to end it by 2015 at this pace," said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Mark Johnston, an acting assistant secretary at Housing and Urban Development, said the stable homeless rate during tough economic times was viewed as encouraging news.
Johnston said the federal government is spending about $1.9 billion to house the homeless. The amount has steadily increased over the years, with a particular boost coming from the 2009 economic stimulus package.
That investment would probably need to grow to about $20 billion to provide housing for all of the homeless during a one-year period, Johnston said. Officials know that's unlikely, so the focus is on targeting the money where it's having the greatest effect.
They said more money is being directed to subsidize the cost of permanent housing. HUD provides that money while Veterans Affairs steps in with other services, such as drug and alcohol counseling and job training.
Roman said the investment helps cut government costs elsewhere.
"People who don't have stable housing create all kinds of other costs. Their health problems are worse. It's pretty much impossible to keep a job, and it has all kinds of snowballing effects," Roman said. "So these are smart public investments, and we need to keep going to reach these goals."
Officials said most homeless people only need shelter for a few days or weeks. They tend to rely on the more than 400,000 beds provided through emergency shelters and transitional housing.
More than half of the homeless people who used such temporary help are part of families using those services. The homelessness among people in families increased by 1.4 percent in the latest count.