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Headway with the homeless

Through a concept called 'housing first,' America is finally reducing homelessness.

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After 30 years, one of America's most intractable social problems is finally turning around: Overall homelessness has fallen 12 percent since 2005. Thanks goes to a eureka insight, followed by a coordinated nationwide push. The progress proves that Americans at all levels can tackle difficult challenges if they commit to them.

The light-bulb idea is pretty intuitive, though it took decades to settle on it: Instead of merely managing the homeless – shuttling them between shelters, detox centers, hospitals, and jails – local officials now work to first give them a long-term residence. Case workers then make sure they get the services they need, and that they don't again end up on the street.

The concept, known as "housing first," has been mostly directed at the chronically homeless, a term the federal government defines as mentally ill or otherwise disabled people who have been without a residence for at least a year, or who have been homeless several times over several years.

From 2005 to 2007, the number of chronically homeless fell 30 percent, to 123,833, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report last month. The overall number of homeless fell to about 672,000 people. (Merely counting the homeless is quite a feat.)

Congress began to push "housing first" in 1999 by ordering HUD to funnel a third of its homeless funds into permanent housing. Then, under President Bush, HUD began to provide incentive money to communities that focus on the chronically homeless. Now there are 345 such communities – local governments, charities, and businesses – working with 10-year plans to reduce or end homelessness.

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