WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. homelessness slipped 1 percent from 2009 to 2011, but the sluggish economy left more poor people struggling to pay for housing and just a step away from shelters, an advocacy group said in a new study on Wednesday.
The drop to 636,017 homeless people last year could prove short-lived, since it was likely due to $1.5 billion in federal aid that will run out this year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness said in its report.
"The fact that homelessness dropped in the middle of a downturn is counter-intuitive," Nan Roman, the Alliance's president and chief executive, told a news conference.
The federal aid, part of an economic stimulus package, "seems to have worked," she said.
The Alliance, which groups public, private and non-profit organizations, said the biggest decrease in homelessness was among veterans, with the number falling 11 percent to 67,495 in 2011.
The overall decline in homelessness, however small, may not last long. Current trends point to the number of homeless people rising about 5 percent through 2013, Peter Witte, a researcher who compiled the study, told reporters.
In one indicator of possible trouble, the number of poor households that spent more than half their incomes on rent -- defined as "severely housing cost burdened" -- rose 6 percent to 6.2 million, the report said.
The number of people living "doubled up" with friends, relatives or others jumped 13 percent to 6.8 million. "Doubling up" is the usual step before people move into shelters, Witte said.
Robert Rector, a senior researcher with the Heritage Foundation, called the slight decline in homelessness "pretty startling" in light of the worst U.S. economic downturn since the Great Depression.
He said the federal aid, although worthwhile, had played only a small part in easing homelessness.
The slowness of mortgage foreclosure proceedings, which can run up to two years, means that more people can stay in their homes. "Doubling up" and the number of families with two incomes has also buffered the impact of the downturn, he said.
"I think the system has actually worked extremely well -- the whole system, meaning how the banks treated the foreclosures and how the homeless shelters system worked," Rector said.
Although the homeless population fell nationally, it rose in 24 states and the District of Columbia, which had a homeless rate of 108 for each 10,000 people.
The metropolitan area with the highest rate of homelessness was Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Florida, at 57 per 10,000 people. Among the states with the highest rate were Oregon and Hawaii, at 45 per 10,000 people.
The national rate was 21 per 10,000 people.
The figures are based on data from U.S. agencies, including the Housing and Urban Development Department, and RealtyTrac, a real estate research group.