The number of homeless people in America decreased about 12 percent last year — and dropped an even better 18 percent in Utah, according to federal estimates released Tuesday.

"We can all be encouraged that we're making progress in reducing chronic street homelessness," said Steve Preston, secretary of Housing and Urban Development. "But we must also recognize that we have a long way to go to find a more lasting solution for those struggling with homelessness every day."

HUD released "snapshot" data for the number of homeless people on the street or in emergency shelters during one night in January 2007, as counted or estimated by more than 3,800 cities and counties nationwide. The latest data comes for a time before the foreclosure crisis of the past year, and before significant economic downturns during the past 18 months.

Still, the report said about 672,000 Americans were homeless in January 2007, about 32,000 fewer than were homeless in 2006.

In Utah, the state with the 19th biggest reduction in homelessness nationwide, it estimated that 3,011 were homeless in January 2007, about 670 fewer than the previous year. According to the Utah Homeless Management Information System, there are about 700 individuals on any given day who have been homeless at least a year and have a debilitating health condition.

HUD estimates that the homeless rate in Utah is declining, but because the country as a whole is, the rate of homelessness in Utah is half the national rate — 11 homeless people per 10,000 Utahns; 22 homeless per 10,000 residents nationally.

Homeless advocates in Utah say the numbers have been leveling off for some time. The numbers should be reduced even further between now and the fall when 450 single and family residences are opened.

Utah, like many other states, has adopted a "housing first" approach and has vowed to end chronic homelessness by 2014. The homeless are given permanent or subsidized housing first then services such as employment assistance, medical care, substance abuse rehabilitation and other basic needs are provided. Because people have a home base, assistance has been more consistent and more effective, the advocates say.

"Our trend has flattened somewhat, although the numbers will spike at certain times of the year," said Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for homeless people.

She noted that some residents of new permanent housing in Salt Lake are people who were permanent fixtures on the street for 14 or 15 years.

"That confirms that something right is being done," she said.

HUD said some of the decrease is likely from moving the homeless into permanent housing programs. But it says that data should be interpreted with caution, because of changes in how some agencies made their counts and because of the general difficulty of obtaining accurate estimates of how many people are on the street.

For example, it said many agencies did not actually count how many people were homeless in 2006 and instead used numbers they had gathered in 2005. It said when just the agencies that made actual counts each year are considered, the national change in homelessness from 2006 to 2007 is a 6 percent drop.

The report also had other estimates about who is among the homeless nationwide.

It said veterans represent about 15 percent of the adults living in emergency shelters. People with HIV or AIDS account for 4 percent of sheltered adults and unaccompanied youths.

It said victims of domestic violence constitute 13 percent of all sheltered people. Also, people with severe mental illness account for about 28 percent of all sheltered adults.

People with chronic substance abuse make up about 39 percent of people in shelters.

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