On a single night last January, 636,017 people were homeless inAmerica, a 2.1 percent decline from the year before, announced federal officials. 

The annual “point-in-time” estimate of the number of homeless individuals and families is based on data reported by more than 3,000 cities and counties.

Between 2010 and 2011, homelessness has gone down by every measure, said Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Most notably, homelessness among veterans declined by nearly 12 percent.

Federal leaders attributed the overall drop largely to the $1.5 billion Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP). Funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, HPRP aimed to prevent a massive increase in homelessness brought on by the recession.

The program helped more than 1.1 million people with short-term assistance, security and utility deposits, and moving expenses. About 75 percent of those benefits went to families, according to Donovan.

HPRP funds have largely been spent as HUD and advocates for the homeless transition to the work under 2009’s Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, better known as the HEARTH Act.

Although federal leaders are encouraged by the latest numbers during these tough economic times, advocates remain cautious. They’ve pointed out that homelessness is a lagging indicator, meaning that it takes time to show up during a recession. Families will go through their savings or stay with relatives before becoming homeless.

Federal officials cited their efforts to reduce the number of homeless veterans. HUD and Veterans Affairs are collaborating on the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program, also known as HUD-VASH. This rental-assistance program has provided more than 33,000 homeless vets permanent supportive housing through rental vouchers.

Overall, 67,495 veterans were homeless in 2011, nearly 9,000 fewer than the 76,329 veterans counted the year before. Vets make up about 14 percent of all homeless adults. Going forward, there’s concern that the number of homeless veterans could rise as troops return home from Iraq.

It was also announced that Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, will serve as the new chair of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Other findings include:

  • Homelessness among individuals declined 2 percent (or 13,900) from a year ago and 5.6 percent since 2007.  Meanwhile, the number of homeless families fell 2.8 percent from last year and 8 percent since 2007.
  • Street homelessness (“the unsheltered homeless population”) declined by 13 percent (or 36,786 people) since 2007.
  • Persons experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness declined 2.4 percent (or 2,664) from last year and 13.5 percent (or 16,635 persons) since 2007.  This steep reduction in chronic homelessness is largely attributed to the sharp growth in the supply of permanent supportive-housing units–more than 30,000 beds between 2010 and 2011, and by more than 83,000 since 2007.
  •   Five states accounted for half of the nation’s total homeless population: California (21.4 percent); New York (10 percent); Florida (8.9 percent); Texas (5.8 percent); and Georgia (3.3 percent).