Earlier this year, when temperatures dropped and homeless shelter populations swelled, cities across the nation counted their homeless at the request of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Parallel to that effort, 178 cities and counties have developed 10-year plans to end homelessness at the urging of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH).

The actions are responses to the federal government's renewed interest in homelessness, which gained steam in 2003 when President Bush announced his objective to end chronic homelessness in 10 years. Emphasizing a shift from managing homelessness to ending it, the president called for the creation of additional permanent housing and allocated $1.4 billion for Homeless Assistance Grant Awards for 2005.

The term “chronic” refers to approximately 10 percent of the homeless population that is unaccompanied, disabled and has been homeless continuously for one year or has experienced four episodes of homelessness within the last four years. The federal government believes that the chronic homelessness consume resources bouncing between homeless shelters, emergency rooms, mental health facilities and treatment centers, and that securing permanent housing will allow a greater investment in the rest of the homeless population. “Ending chronic homelessness is the portal to ending all homelessness,” says Philip Mangano, executive director of ICH.

A number of local and state governments, however, question whether the emphasis on ending chronic homelessness is appropriate. In Maryland, where housing prices put many very-low-income earners and their families on the street, state and local leaders are boosting efforts to make housing more affordable. In fact, a December 2004 survey of 27 major cities conducted by the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors found that a lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 cause of homelessness. “There is a very fluid population that is always on the verge of homelessness,” says Gregory Shupe, executive director of the Maryland Office of Transitional Services. State initiatives, which include eviction prevention programs, credit counseling and help with utility bills, seek to prevent the expense and trauma of people ending up on the streets in the first place.

Others have criticized the push to develop 10-year plans. “Many of them are fairly general and don't talk about the money behind the plans,” says Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness.

Brad Paul, executive director of the Washington-based National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness, says, “There has been a heavy push from ICH [for cities] to enact plans based on local needs, but then they tell cities what they can do with the funding.”

Mangano says in order for the plans to be successful, cities and counties cannot depend completely on federal funding and must also look to their communities. Atlanta's 10-year plan, for example, has drawn in $13 million in private funding.

But even skeptics, such as Erlenbusch, say that the federal government's actions have changed the debate. “People no longer think that ending homelessness is a hopeless cause,” he says.