Amid a lackluster labor market, and a widening gap between rich and poor over the span of his administration (which, to be fair, inherited an absolute train wreck of an economy), President Obama can claim a minor victory in one arena: the number of homeless Americans has slightly declined over his first term.

The numbers (see the USA TODAY report) seem less impressive when considering that homelessness has been on the decline since 2006. But weighed against the severity of the recession and the foreclosure crisis (which the Obama administration responded to poorly) the slight downturn is an achievement.

Advocates for the homeless give much of the credit to a bigger federal investment in housing, part of it from the Obama administration’s stimulus program in 2009 and 2010.


As part of the stimulus, Congress set aside funding for housing, medical and mental health services and preventive measures such as helping renters at risk of homelessness repay rent.

Obama’s policy towards veterans deserves part of the credit, it would seem:

Vince Kane, director of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, says the agency this fall will triple to $300 million what it spends on homeless vets to meet the 2015 goal, which he calls a “daunting” task. “We’re definitely getting more aggressive,” he says. “We know we have to quicken the pace.”

Part of the VA’s success, he says, is because of the agency’s push to get veterans into permanent housing without first insisting they complete treatment for mental health or addiction, a common model just a few years ago. Now, he says, VA finds housing and treatment simultaneously, shaving months off veterans’ time on the streets.

But the numbers seem to be more of a source for relief than something to celebrate. These gains could easily be washed out by austerity budgets, or an increase in unemployment.

Research issued this year by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that the number of “extremely low-income renters” rose 2.5 million to 12.1 million from 2007 to 2011, even as the number of affordable housing units dropped to 6.8 million. And aging Baby Boomers could swell the ranks of the homeless — the Harvard study found that nearly one in three people in federally assisted housing are 62 or older.

Meanwhile, the supply of subsidized rental housing is steadily shrinking: 10,000 public housing units are lost each year, mostly through a lack of public funding for repairs.

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Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.