White House announces plan to end homelessness

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A dramatic new plan to end homelessness within a decade was announced by the Obama administration this week. The initiative calls for ending homelessness among veterans in five years and eliminating it among children and families within 10 years. The Obama plan, "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," marks the first time the federal government has undertaken such a comprehensive effort.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), over 1.6 million people were homeless in 2009.

Commenting on the new proposal, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan called homelessness "a preventable tragedy, a tragedy we can solve."

During the Great Recession homelessness is on the rise.

"The number of families in homeless shelters jumped 7 percent by nearly 11,000 families from 2008 to 2009. Overall, family homelessness was up 30 percent in 2009 from 2007," writes the Miami Herald.

Earlier in the decade, the Bush administration undertook a plan to wipe out the problem among specific populations of "chronically homeless," defined as people who spend large amounts of time in shelters or hospitals. While showing some abatement, the Bush plan failed, leaving a big percentage in the same condition. Says the Herald, "Under the Bush initiative, the nation's chronic homeless population fell to 111,000 in 2009 from nearly 156,000 in 2006, after 42,000 permanent supportive housing slots were added."

The new call to action to aid the country's poorest has several key elements: increasing leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement; increasing access to stable and affordable housing; increasing economic security; improving health and stability; and retooling the homeless response system.

Regarding economic security, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the homeless need help in preparing for meaningful jobs. The department would use more than $24 million as part of stimulus money to provide job training to about 14,000 homeless veterans, she said, with 97 grants going to 31 states.   

Bills in the House and Senate to provide jobs and unemployment benefits have stalled because of Republican opposition.

Indeed, the GOP-imposed blockade on programs to help the poor may make it unlikely that Congress will appropriate money to support the plan. Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said, "The big question is whether preventing children and families in the U.S. from becoming homeless is important enough for Congress" to increase homeless-program funding, "and I don't think they'll do that without enough pressure and leadership from the White House."

However, President Obama is seeking financial support. The Associated Press reports that funding for the effort includes some of the $2 billion in stimulus money allocated last year to the 19 federal agencies in the council. The money, used for a variety of services related to the homeless, is in addition to $3.79 billion budgeted for such services in 2010.

The Obama administration is seeking $4.2 billion for the federal Interagency Council on Homelessnes in the 2011 fiscal year, including money specific to the new plan's initiatives, said Jason Kravitz, a spokesman for the council.

Importantly, LGBT groups applauded the comprehensiveness of the program, noting it targeted young people of different sexual orientations for help. HUD Secretary Donovan said, "While some are scarred by war, others are families who have recently lost their home; still, others are youth aging out of foster care or are perhaps unable to stay with families [that are] hostile to their sexual orientation or gender identity." 

Economic stimulus monies have helped over 350,000 people move from shelters to apartments this year.

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