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8,500 homeless in 2009-10, 60% for first time, report says

An estimated 8,500 people ended up homeless in Erie County in 2009-10 -- and three out of five of those people had never experienced homelessness before, a new report found.

The number was significantly higher than in 2008-09, when the Homeless Alliance of Western New York tracked a total of 6,683 homeless people in Erie County.

But researchers cautioned against comparing the numbers or drawing definitive conclusions, because the 2008-09 figures were less complete than the more recent data.

Rather than a large increase in homelessness, the data reveals that more human-services agencies were participating in a countywide Homeless Management Information System managed by the Homeless Alliance, the report concluded.

Other statistics -- including twice-yearly "point-in-time" counts and monthly snapshot data collected from area homeless shelters -- suggest that homelessness has remained largely steady in the county, said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.

"The most striking statistic out of all of this is 60 percent of homeless people were becoming homeless for the first time," Zuchlewski said. "That goes back to poverty being the root cause of homelessness."

The data analysis was conducted by Kristin Cipollone, a doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo, using statistics collected by the Homeless Alliance.

The report was issued to raise community awareness about homelessness; it also will be used to update the area's 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. That plan, known as PRISM, was first put forth in 2006.

Zuchlewski said he expects an updated 10-year plan to be ready in early 2012.

The number of homeless people could have been much higher in 2009-10. The report revealed that 6,426 people in Erie County received aid from the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program, the federal stimulus funds aimed at preventing homelessness.

Those funds are due to expire in December, and Zuchlewski warned that "we may see a dramatic increase at the end of this year and into next year."

One finding suggests that human-services providers were making progress at curbing homelessness in the area.

For years, advocates for the homeless had used a figure of 2,000 in describing the estimated number of homeless people in Erie County on any given night.

That estimate, based on the most recent data available, is now pegged at 1,200 to 1,500 people.

Of those, 200 people were estimated to be living on the streets and in abandoned homes at any given time, the report found.

Among other findings:

*Males made up 59 percent of the homeless population.

*18 percent of homeless in Erie County were under age 18.

*434 veterans reported being homeless.

*729 people were "chronically homeless," defined as being homeless for more than a year or having experienced homelessness four or more times within the past three years.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com