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 past 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.
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 Department of Housing and Urban Development. 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 a 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 HUD, 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.
10 Emptiest Urban Areas in America
U.S. Homeless Rate Stays Steady Despite Government Efforts to Curb It
Vacancy rate: 5.8% Median price per square foot: $73 Unemployment: 11.5%
It's not surprising that Las Vegas, the poster child of the housing downturn, adds high vacancy rates to its litany of problems with overbuilding and high foreclosure rates. Between peak and trough, Las Vegas housing prices plummeted by 60.4 percent. This decline in home values in Las Vegas and other housing markets in the state have contributed to Nevada being the only state in the country where the total worth of homes is less than the total amount owed on these homes.
Vacancy rate: 6.1% Median price per square foot: $83 Unemployment: 9.1%
In October the vacancy rate in Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville climbed 8.3 percent from last year, the highest of all increases on this list. Homes in Palm Bay specifically are very cheap these days: The median sale price between August and October 2012 dropped by 2.6 percent from the previous year to only $76,000. In Palm Bay Colony, which, Trulia notes, is among the most-searched neighborhoods in that city, the current average listing price is just $58,704.
Vacancy rate: 6.2% Median price per square foot: $78 Unemployment: 6.5%
Unlike metropolitan areas in Florida and Nevada, the housing market crash was not nearly as bad in Ohio. In Cleveland, the price drop from peak to trough was 17.6 percent, a far more modest decline compared to cities such as Las Vegas. Despite faring better than many markets, Cleveland is not yet showing many signs of turning a corner. On top of high vacancy rates, the average price per square foot is unchanged on a year-over-year basis, and the number of sales have dropped by nearly 20 percent in the same period. Further, while 1,754 resale and new homes are for sale in Cleveland, as per Trulia’s site, another 5,451 homes are in some phase of the foreclosure process.
Vacancy rate: 6.5% (tied for 4th highest) Median price per square foot: $69 Unemployment: 7.2%
There are some encouraging signs in the Toledo housing market despite its high vacancy rate. The median price per square foot is up about 60 percent on a year-over-year basis, according to Trulia. Another measure, however, points to an inventory problem: For each new or resale home listed on Trulia, there are two homes in the foreclosure pipeline that are either vacant or will enter the market at some point. The peak-to-trough price decline of 18.2 percent remains a challenge in a market that saw just a 4.6 percent price increase on a year-over-year basis.
Vacancy rate: 6.6% (tied for 4th highest) Median price per square foot: $72 Unemployment: 6.9%
If Dayton is starting to blossom into a rosier housing market, it is not yet evident in the area’s housing statistics. In addition to high vacancy rates, the data show a decrease in housing prices per square foot on a year-over-year basis along with a drop in the median sales price. Sales volume in the city climbed just 2.6 percent in the same period. The 11.8 percent peak-to-trough drop in the area was not the worst in Ohio, but that is not much to cheer about. Still, for homebuyers, a median sale price of $73,658 must have a certain appeal.
Vacancy rate: 6.6% (tied for 4th highest) Median price per square foot: $85 Unemployment: 8.8% (Michigan City-LaPorte, Ind.)
Of all metropolitan areas on this list, Gary’s was hit the least by the housing downturn. Home prices fell just 10.2 percent between the market’s peak and its trough. Although prices did not drop massively during the downturn, the asking price in Gary fell 3.5 percent from the previous year, worse than all but two metro areas. The average listing price in Gary is just $59,939. There's something else hurting a recovery in Gary: It's become something of a ghost town.
Vacancy rate: 6.6% (tied for 4th highest) Median price per square foot: $115 Unemployment: 8.4%
While about seven in 10 markets Trulia analyzed showed increases in vacancy rates, the vacancy rate in Fort Lauderdale actually decreased by almost 1 percent, indicating a strengthening housing market. And although the 4.4 percent increase in asking price is far from the strongest growth of all the metro areas measured, it is among the top third. One concern is that the average price per square foot has dropped 59.3 percent on a year-over-year basis.
Vacancy rate: 6.7% Median price per square foot: $109 Unemployment: 8.4% (Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Like most markets in Florida, the West Palm Beach market took a major hit during the housing downturn, falling 48.4 percent during the recession. Fortunately, recovery is taking hold. The average asking price in the area is up 11.3 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier, the fifth-largest increase of all metro areas measured. Also, the average price per square foot is up an impressive 63.7 percent compared to a year ago.
Vacancy rate: 6.9% Median price per square foot: $92 Unemployment: 7.0%
Similar to markets in Nevada and Florida, the Tucson area was hit very hard by the housing downturn. Housing prices fell 37.3 percent between its peak and trough. While asking prices grew 8.1 percent year-over-year, the growth in listing price is not nearly as strong as in neighboring Phoenix, which grew by almost 25 percent in the same period. Still, the average price per square foot in Tucson is up a healthy 56.6 percent on a year-over-year basis, suggesting that the market is bouncing back.
Vacancy rate: 12.3% Median price per square foot: $47 Unemployment: 10%
Detroit’s housing market has taken a larger hit than most in recent years due to problems in the automobile industry. Between its highest and lowest point, home prices dropped 39 percent. The median price per square foot of just $47 is the lowest out of all 100 metropolitan areas measured. For every new or resale home listing on Trulia, nearly another three are in some phase of the foreclosure process. A troubling thought for anyone contemplating selling a home in this oversaturated market is that, despite low home prices (the average listing is under $48,000), the number of sales has actually decreased by more than 27 percent on a year-over-year basis.