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The Might-Be Homeless

Economic slumps typically prompt a rise in the nation's homeless. And while some signs point to the current recession ending, the homeless population still feels its effects.

The US Conference of Mayors noted a dramatic rise in homeless populations in major cities last December: Requests for emergency food assistance were up an average of 23 percent in 25 big cities surveyed. Indeed, rising housing costs and low-wage jobs are pushing many working poor out of their homes. The Urban Institute notes that on any given day 800,000 people were homeless in the US last year. Four to 5 times that number experienced homelessness at some time during the year.

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Creating housing, or renovating existing housing to take care of the "long-term homeless" (those with serious disabilities or histories of substance abuse, for example) is proving effective, and experts point toward an increasing consensus that housing is the best way to close the "back door" on homelessness.

But fixing the "front door" - the flow of new people into homeless situations - remains much more elusive. What's needed is greater cooperation among a number of agencies dealing with housing, mental health, substance abuse, community development, and other social services.

Identifying those at risk and offering them a range of services is the first step. A program in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, has a central "intake" for homeless families. In 2000, about 1,000 people called the program's hotline; 40 percent of them had their problems (child care, job counseling, substance-abuse treatment, or transportation, for example) resolved and didn't need to enter a shelter.

Efforts to prevent homelessness altogether, as well as help for those already confronted with the problem, must go hand in hand.