(USA TODAY) - Despite a deep recession and a slow, fitful jobs recovery, one key indicator of the nation's economic well-being has quietly improved nearly every year since 2005: homelessness.
The number has dropped 17% in that span: An estimated 129,000 fewer Americans were homeless in 2012 than in 2005, even after a mortgage crisis kicked thousands out of their homes.
Since 2009 alone, the number of homeless military veterans has dropped 17%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says it is on track to ending homelessness for veterans by 2015.
Advocates for the homeless give much of the credit to a bigger federal investment in housing, part of it from the Obama administration's stimulus program in 2009 and 2010.
Beginning in the late 1990s, government agencies and aid groups changed their approach to profiling the homeless, says Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that has tracked the statistics.
Researcher Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania found that about 80% need only temporary help to fend off eviction, often because of unpaid rent or utility bills. Only about 20% are chronically homeless.
As part of the stimulus, Congress set aside funding for housing, medical and mental health services and preventive measures such as helping renters at risk of homelessness repay rent.
Vince Kane, director of the VA's National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, says the agency this fall will triple to $300 million what it spends on homeless vets to meet the 2015 goal, which he calls a "daunting" task. "We're definitely getting more aggressive," he says. "We know we have to quicken the pace."
Part of the VA's success, he says, is because of the agency's push to get veterans into permanent housing without first insisting they complete treatment for mental health or addiction, a common model just a few years ago. Now, he says, VA finds housing and treatment simultaneously, shaving months off veterans' time on the streets.
"We can move people quickly from streets into housing with the whole health care system wrapped around them," he says. "It's made all the difference in the world."
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation calls the drop in homelessness during the weak economy "an astonishing story" but says it suggests that Americans may actually be incorrectly associating the mortgage crisis with homelessness.
"Part of the story there is that people who went into default were almost never pushed out of the homes that they were in," he says. "For whatever reason, mortgage holders rarely put anybody out on the street."
Though many Americans eventually lost their homes during the downturn, he says, the process was often long and allowed them to find other living arrangements, either on their own or through family and friends. The number who actually went from owning a home to being homeless, he says, was "a very, very small number."
Roman says mandated federal spending cuts could reverse the USA's downward trend because it could affect public housing. Research issued this year by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that the number of "extremely low-income renters" rose 2.5 million to 12.1 million from 2007 to 2011, even as the number of affordable housing units dropped to 6.8 million. And aging Baby Boomers could swell the ranks of the homeless - the Harvard study found that nearly one in three people in federally assisted housing are 62 or older.
Meanwhile, the supply of subsidized rental housing is steadily shrinking: 10,000 public housing units are lost each year, mostly through a lack of public funding for repairs.
"The housing picture is just grim," Roman says.