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New ways of addressing an old urban problem

Despite a strong economy, homelessness continues to rise in America. But boomtime dollars are helping cities engineer effective solutions.

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Out on America's streets, the living is not as easy as the rollicking stock market and strong economy might indicate.

In fact, despite years of work and millions of dollars spent to eradicate it, homelessness in America is still on the rise - a defiant trend that persists even as other social ills are waning.

Moreover, it is this same boomtime economy - seen in the revival of many downtown districts - that is prompting cities to redouble efforts to get the homeless off the newly refurbished streets.

In some places, the response has been to send in the police, make arrests, and enact laws to crack down on begging. "There's a certain level of frustration ... it's hard for cities to know what to do," says Kelly Cunningham, an attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington.

But even as some cities try to shove the problem out of downtowns, many recognize such actions won't make homelessness go away. In a number of places across the nation, the quest for a more permanent solution is driving innovative experiments in helping the homeless.

Many know that the obvious answer - to find people housing they can afford - is not as simple as it seems.

"We do know how to end homelessness," says Philip Mangano of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance in Boston. In the past four years, Massachusetts has moved 5,000 people from shelters to permanent homes. The problem, Mr. Mangano says, is that "for every six people we move out the back door [into permanent housing], there are another seven waiting at the front door."

According to the US Conference of Mayors, requests for emergency shelter assistance were up 11 percent last year.

The No. 1 reason people are forced onto the streets is today's skyrocketing housing costs. "I don't think it's a big secret," says Robert Hess of the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore. "There's a lack of affordable housing and a lack of jobs that pay a living wage."

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