- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

DENVER — Three years after the start of the most aggressive nationwide strategy in a generation to solve homelessness, there is evidence that it may be working: The number of street people in cities across the United States has plummeted for the first time since the 1980s.

The drop-off reflected in street counts of the homeless taken over the past year has ranged from 30 percent in Miami and 28 percent in Dallas to 20 percent in Portland, Ore., and 13 percent in New York. In all, 30 jurisdictions reported declines in their homeless populations.

The figures emerged as more than 250 civic and social program leaders — all of whom are behind 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness across the nation — gathered in Denver earlier this month to compare notes for the first time since the Bush administration began pushing for creation of the plans in 2003.

The homeless counts, taken in one-day tallies in shelters and streets at varying dates across the country, are “not an aberration,” said Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and President Bush’s point man on the issue. “They are part of a national trend.”

The goal of the 10-year plans is to put the most dysfunctional homeless people in the country — that 10 percent to 20 percent who are continually on the street with addiction or mental problems — quickly into permanent “supportive” housing with counseling services to help them get healthy. Those chronic cases are a tremendous financial burden on their communities in hospital, jail and other services — hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece annually in some instances.

The savings from stabilizing these homeless people in more cost-effective supportive housing can be used to extend services to all the homeless, say Mr. Mangano and other proponents of the plans.

The last time there was such a widespread national strategy to address homelessness was in the mid-1980s, when cities from San Francisco to New York built shelters and systems to route people into health services so they eventually could move into residences. That method has been widely discredited since the late 1990s as social scientists determined that a $12,000-a-year supportive housing unit is more cost-effective than a $35,000-a-year shelter bed.

While lauding the 10-year planning concept, however, some among the mayors, governors, welfare directors and social agency workers who came to discuss their efforts cautiously complained that focusing on the more hard-core people is neglecting the plight of homeless families. In some communities, such as New York or Contra Costa County, Calif., families constitute at least half of the homeless population.

Mr. Mangano touted the Bush administration’s allocation of more than $4 billion this year in funds targeted for the homeless — a 7 percent increase over last year — but the social-program directors gathered in Denver said they feared that cuts in other anti-poverty health and housing programs might leave them running in place.

University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane, a leading researcher on the benefits of supportive housing, said he could understand the concerns, but concentrating efforts on the chronic cases will pay off for everyone in the end, he said.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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