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Feds: Homelessness declining overall in U.S., but some cities see a rise

HONOLULU -- Homelessness is declining overall in the U.S., but there are cities and states where homelessness is on the rise, according to new data from the federal government.

A lack of affordable housing and growing problems with opioid addiction are fueling the problem in many cities in the West, experts said Thursday.

“There’s so much that we can be proud of out there in terms of progress,” said Julián Castro, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a conference call about the department’s report Thursday.

But on a recent cold night in Washington D.C., Castro counted 10 people who spent the night on park benches outside, and he said there are similar scenes in every community across the country.

“Men and women like them aren’t just visible reminders of public policy challenges,” Castro said. “They’re human beings who deserve a permanent home to call their own.”

In Hawaii where homelessness has been increasing, Gov. David Ige’s administration has used money made available after Ige declared a state of emergency to accelerate the development of affordable housing and shelters. The state is also investing time to ensure that along with developing housing, there are integrated services, said Scott Morishige, Ige’s homelessness coordinator.

Nationwide, homelessness has declined 14 percent since 2010, the year President Barack Obama launched Opening Doors, a program initiated by President Barack Obama urging communities to have a plan in place to prevent and reduce homelessness. During that time, veteran homelessness fell 47 percent.

Officials hope communities apply what they’ve learned helping veterans to other groups with high rates of homelessness.

The federal government released the numbers after volunteers across the country counted homeless people in their local areas. The volunteers fanned out across local communities in January, interviewing people they find living outside, on the street, in shelters or in transitional housing. Some advocates for the homeless feel the volunteer-run count underestimates the total, because many homeless people aren’t reached or they don’t want to admit to being homeless.

 A new report also says cities nationwide are enacting more policies that criminalize homelessness. 

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty said Tuesday many cities have banned living in vehicles, camping in public areas and panhandling. 

The center says policies that criminalize homelessness harm communities because they create barriers to employment, housing and education. 

Honolulu is among a handful of cities named in the report’s “hall of shame” for what the authors call bad policies. The report says Honolulu issued more than 16,000 warnings to people violating its sit-lie ban since it was enacted in Waikiki in 2014. 

Honolulu officials say the ban is necessary so people can safely use public sidewalks and because tourists and residents complained. 

Denver, Dallas and Puyallup, Washington, also were criticized for criminalizing policies.

In Portland, Oregon, in August, the mayor announced the end of pilot program that allowed homeless people to sleep on the streets undisturbed by law enforcement, saying it created confusion because some believed it legalized public camping, but defended his overall approach.

“The ‘safe sleep’ policy was well intended, but it created a lot of confusion and maybe some accidental or deliberate misunderstandings,” the mayor said. “It was never intended to legalize (street) camping.”

The mayor’s office told CBS affiliate KOIN at the time it would work with experts on other ways to help those homeless people. The mayor said he realized it’s unrealistic to get every homeless person off the street, so enforcement would be compassionate.