In June of 2010, President Barack Obama introduced his Opening Doors program, a plan meant to prevent and eventually end homelessness in the United States. Since the program’s introduction, Penn professor Dennis Culhane has tracked its progress, finding a significant decline in homelessness that is still continuing steadily.
The results of Dr. Culhane’s research are encouraging, especially those figures regarding veteran homelessness. Since 2010, he found that unsheltered homelessness has dropped 26 percent, chronic homelessness has dropped 22 percent and veteran homelessness has dropped 36 percent nationally. This data was gathered using a point-in-time count, which determines the number of people that are homeless on a given day in the last week of January each year.
A computer system that registers entries and exits from the shelter system also aided in the data collection. A huge amount of resources — in the ballpark of $6 billion — has been allocated to fighting homelessness since 2010, which encouraged improvement.
“That’s a lot of money,” Culhane said. “So we expected to see progress.”
On top of the incredible amount of resources, the actual methods used to combat homelessness were expected to contribute to a decline in the overall rate.
“We’re using the interventions ... that have been demonstrated in research to be effective. So we knew that they would work,” Culhane said.
The decrease in homelessness nationally is also reflected in Philadelphia. Culhane said the city has experienced an extreme decline in veteran homelessness in particular, nearly to the point of eradication.
“They’re down to fewer than 200 homeless veterans in the city,” he said. “There’s been a lot of work and attention focused on that effort in Philadelphia.”
For those fighting the day-to-day battle against homelessness in Philadelphia, improvement is acknowledged, but with less enthusiasm. Misty Sparks, director of entry-level programs at Bethesda Project, a homeless outreach program, noted that while “technically, statistically” homelessness has declined in Philadelphia, those figures are not reflected in the population she works with.
“My work focuses on working with folks that are living on the streets,” Sparks said. “And I have to say the number of those experiencing homelessness and living outside in the city of Philadelphia has stayed pretty constant.”
Despite Sparks’ experience directly with the homeless, Culhane said Philadelphia actually does a good job of keeping people off the streets.
“We have one of the more organized street outreach programs in the country ... There’s an ongoing, everyday effort focused on trying to work with people who are living outside to get them into housing units,” Culhane said.
Sparks has noticed a decline in veteran homelessness comparable to Culhane’s results.
“Many veterans who spent a lot of time on the streets are now not on the streets anymore, which I think is amazing,” she said.
However, she does not agree with any claims that veteran homelessness has ended in the city. She spoke of a recent press conference held by city officials stating that veteran homelessness had been eradicated.
“When we say we’ve ‘ended veteran homelessness’ and still have veterans living in shelters and on our streets, we’re being very dishonest, but also disrespectful to those veterans,” Sparks said.
Philadelphia, along with the rest of the country, has certainly seen an improvement in the issue of homelessness, but there is still work to be done, she added.
“I think that we have done great things, we’re just not all the way there yet,” she said.
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