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HUD Study Examines Rise In First-Time Homelessness

Many Americans find themselves just one paycheck removed from homelessness as the nation struggles to rebound from financial crisis.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that 1.6 million Americans were homeless and stayed in a shelter at least once in 2008, the last year that statistics are available.

But more notably, the nation's homeless population is changing, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan tells NPR's Michel Martin.

"What we're finding more and more is that the traditional image many people may have about homelessness — of a single person suffering with long-term substance abuse or even mental illness — is really not the model we're seeing emerging over the last few years in the economic crisis," Donovan says. "More and more it's families."

First-Time Homelessness

Over the past year, the agency reports a 56 percent increase in rural and suburban family homelessness. That nationwide increase places a heavy strain on agencies providing services to the homeless.

A newly released HUD study examines the cost of providing services for first-time homeless families and individuals in six areas across the nation.

According to the study, a month's stay in an emergency homeless shelter for a family in Washington, D.C. — one of the cities the study focuses on — can cost as much as $3,500. Family health care and child education needs can raise costs even more.

"It's one-third the cost of that for an apartment with supportive services that can help a family get back on their feet," says Donovan, who previously served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Prevention And Stabilization

HUD is investing $1.5 billion to prioritize homeless prevention and housing stabilization efforts for people who find themselves in need.

Providing supplemental quality of life services, such as substance abuse counseling or jobs training for those displaced, should be a secondary goal, Donovan says. Once stable shelter is secured, everything else falls into place, he says.

"If people do fall into emergency shelter, helping them move [on] as quickly as possible is very important," he says.

Under his leadership, Donovan hopes his agency can drastically reduce the homeless population.

"The cheapest thing of all, and the best thing for those families that are at risk, is for them never to become homeless in the first place," explains Donovan.

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