Some 633,000 Americans -- larger than the population of Seattle -- were homeless in 2012, but the situation could have been a whole lot worse, according to a new report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Many economic indicators suggest that homelessness should have increased: The national median income dropped; the number of people in poverty increased; and as a higher proportion of people moved into rental housing, the cost of fair market rent increased and the supply of rental housing dwindled. Yet the overall homeless population was about the same as the year before, with less than a 1 percent drop between 2011 and 2012.

“It’s sort of a miracle that it wasn’t bigger,” said Alliance president Nan Roman.

Counting the nation's homeless population is notoriously difficult, and the report’s data is based on annual estimates representing a snapshot from one evening each January. So the Alliance focuses on big changes from year to year. In addition to the steady year-over-year numbers, the latest report also shows a reduction in both the number of homeless military veterans (down 7.2 percent) and the chronically homeless (down 6.8 percent). Both populations have been steadily shrinking in number since 2009.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers someone chronically homeless if an individual is disabled and is continuously homeless for at least a year or has four episodes of homelessness within the past three years. The definition can also apply to families with an adult head of the household who is chronically homeless. Nationwide, slightly fewer than 100,000 people were chronically homeless in 2012, with a third living in just one state -- California.

The rate of homelessness among veterans was 29 percent in 2012, higher than for the general population. Thirty-two states reported reductions in their rates of homeless veterans.

What accounts for the declines among veterans and the chronically homeless? Changes in federal policy, said Roman. Since President Barack Obama and Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans of Affairs (VA), pledged in 2009 to end veteran homelessness, HUD and the VA have collaborated on a program that provides rental-assistance vouchers for permanent housing, linked with counseling, case management and medical services through VA hospitals and community centers. Between 2008 and 2012, the program awarded 48,385 of these vouchers.

Roman also attributed some of the progress to the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The HUD program dispersed $1.5 billion in grants to some 540 state and local governments to keep individuals and families under a roof. The money paid for rental assistance, security deposits, utility payments, moving assistance and vouchers for motels and hotels.

In 2011 Michigan circled back with more than 6,000 clients who received financial help through the rapid re-housing program and found that 93.5 percent of those helped within the first two years did not end up homeless. By September 2012, HUD estimated that 46,433 people in Michigan either avoided becoming homeless or quickly found housing because of the stimulus-funded program.* The Alliance’s report found that Michigan’s chronically homeless population in 2012 was 1,174, representing a 27.1 percent drop from the previous year.

In the same time frame, Minnesota recorded a 17.1 percent decrease in the chronically homeless and a 31.2 percent decrease in its homeless veterans. Local experts credit two programs offering rental-assistance vouchers, one tied to rental housing and the other to veteran tenants.

Since 2009, the St. Paul Public Housing Agency received 125 tenant-based vouchers for veterans from HUD, worth about $1 million per year in rental subsidies and administrative costs. It received another 265 vouchers for defraying the cost of rent at specific affordable housing projects, worth $2.48 million per year. Both programs sought to connect tenants with counseling, case management and other support services.

Despite progress in the chronic and veteran categories, Minnesota’s homeless population last year was 7,744, with a homeless rate (14.5 percent per 10,000 state residents) higher than about half the states in the country.

“I think we -- as a community -- are doing a lot of things well,” said Al Hester, the housing policy director for St. Paul Public Housing Agency, “but I’m not sure the end is in sight.”

5 Noteworthy Numbers from the Report:

  • 1 -- Mississippi’s ranking as the state with the lowest homelessness rate (8.1 percent per 10,000 in the general population)
  • 45.4 percent -- Hawaii’s homelessness rate, the highest of any state in the country (again, per 10,000 in the general population)
  • 35.3 percent -- the proportion of Louisiana’s homeless population that is chronically homeless, higher than any state
  • 16,461 -- the number of homeless veterans in California, which is about 27 percent of all homeless veterans in the United States
  • 239,403 -- the number of homeless people in families in 2012

*This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of people served by the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program in Michigan by September 2012.