Discuss as:

Homeless numbers down, but risks rise

Justin Lane / EPA

A woman walks past a man sleeping on a street in New York in November 2009.

A report released Wednesday says the number of homeless people in America fell slightly between 2009 and 2011 despite a teetering economy, but homeless advocates say the numbers don’t tell the full story.

The report, “State of Homeless in America 2012,” was issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nationwide federation of public, private and nonprofit organizations. It examined homelessness between 2009 and 2011, a period when the U.S. economy was dragging itself out of its worst recession since World War II.

Despite the dire economy, homelessness decreased 1 percent, or by about 7,000 people, during the period – a development the report’s authors said was most likely due to a significant investment of federal money to prevent homelessness and quickly rehouse people who did become homeless.

The report says an estimated 643,067 people experienced homelessness in the U.S. on a given night in 2011 – down from 636,017 in 2009.

 This translates into a rate of 21 homeless people per 10,000 people.

The largest decrease was among homeless war veterans. Their numbers went from 75,609 in 2009 to 67,495 in 2011, a reduction of 11 percent.

Read the full report

Why did the number of homeless drop even while the economy was in the doldrums?

The report cites the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, or HPRP, a federal program established with $1.5 billion in funding from the stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009 at the urging of President Barack Obama. In 2010, its first year of operation, the program helped nearly 700,000 at-risk and homeless people, the report said.

Despite the slight dip in homelessness, there is much reason for concern and indicators suggest that homelessness may affect more Americans in the coming years. Among the findings is a 13 percent increase in “doubled up” households from 2009 to 2011 and a 22 percent increase in families below the poverty line paying 50 percent or more  of their monthly income on housing.

The effects of the poor economy on homelessness are expected to escalate over the next few years, the report says. The money provided by HPRP has run out in many communities and the program is slated to sunset entirely this fall. And the fight in Congress over debt and deficit cuts means fewer dollars will be available to help the homeless.

“In the year since the data in this report was collected (January 2011), there have already been reports that the number of homeless people is increasing,” the authors said. “So while holding the line on homelessness between 2009 and 2011 was a major accomplishment of federal investment and local innovation, the failure to sustain this early recipe for success threatens to undermine progress now and in the future.”

Homelessness Research Institute

The data show that nearly half (24) the states and the District of Columbia had increases in homelessness. State changes range from a 33 percent decrease in Rhode Island to a 102 percent increase in Wyoming.

Truth in numbers?
Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group, says the decline in the raw numbers of homeless is likely based on poor data from the federal government.

“I think in fact the numbers of homeless individuals and families have gone up. It’s similar to the job market -- when numbers go up and down it doesn’t always tell you the full picture but it tells you how many people are still willing to participate in activities that result in them being counted as homeless,” he told msnbc.com.

The coalition is among several advocacy groups that contend the U.S. Census Bureau routinely undercounts homeless people.

Donovan cites homeless schoolchildren as another example of faulty government counting. School systems nationwide are required to report the number of students experiencing homelessness. Last year, they reported a total of 770,000. But by federal government standards only 110,000 of those children would be considered homeless, due to factors such as the discounting of students living in hotels or doubled up, Donovan said.

Donovan says it’s likely that the number of homeless is actually getting worse.

“We have many more homeless families than we did before. When you’re an individual and you’re homeless, your homelessness can be very, very difficult. When you’re a family and you’re homeless, it can be impossible,” Donovan said. “When a person’s homelessness is impossible, it’s imperative for us to come to their rescue because responsibility is no longer a part of the conversation.”

Sharon Thomas, spokeswoman for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, agreed the numbers don't tell the full story. She says the Seattle-King County area has added several thousand new housing units for homeless people in the past few years. Yet, the number of homeless hasn’t decreased in the same proportion.

“It looks like the numbers are going down, but there seems to be more people who are on the edge,” she said.

She notes the Union Gospel Mission is now serving an average of 1,500 meals a day – up from 1,200 not long ago.

“There a lot of good people and organizations that care about homeless people but there’s a lot of people out there who are hurting. We can always do more.”

More content from msnbc.com and NBC News