OAKLAND -- While family homelessness nationwide went up 4 percent between 2007 and 2009, in Alameda County it decreased 13 percent, homelessness experts reported.

Alameda County has seen success cutting that number largely through strong communication between different agencies and local government, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She spoke Thursday at a conference at the Oakland Marriott, which drew more than 600 people to discuss new ideas for tackling a growing homelessness problem.

In Oakland, family homelessness dropped 43 percent in the same time frame, Roman said. In Berkeley, where 41 percent of the county's chronically homeless live, the number fell by almost half, from 529 people to 276, according to a city official.

"It can be done by improving systems," Roman said. "We can achieve reductions in spite of all this incredible mess we're in."

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan also spoke, and like several presenters, she emphasized a need to collaborate across agency, city and county lines.

"Homeless families often travel shelter to shelter," Quan said. "They'll spend six months here, then go to the North Bay for three months, then come back to Oakland, then go to the South Bay, then start the circuit again until they finally get permanent housing."

Dealing with it as a Bay Area problem "has made a difference," she added.

"Individually, we don't have enough resources."

The circuit Quan referenced highlights an overall problem with transitional housing as a model for solving homelessness, because it tends to incur long-term expenses that can be avoided by funding families directly into permanent homes, Roman said.

That funding is part of a policy approach called rapid rehousing, an idea that has been around since the 1990s. It launched in a whole new way with $1.5 billion from the federal stimulus package in 2009, but that funding is dwindling and federal officials seem uninterested in giving it another boost, Roman said.

Rapid rehousing can be reapplied on more local levels if smaller agencies can shift around their own resources, Roman said. On-the-ground service providers are almost exclusively nonprofits working together with local governments, and a coordinated strategy may be able to keep the problem under control despite a backlog of horrendous economic conditions, she said.

"Say an apartment big enough to house a given family is $1,000 a month," Roman said. If a family's breadwinner loses his or her job and the family ends up losing their home, to move back into an apartment, "they probably need the first month's rent, and a deposit and other moving costs, and it's going to cost them $2,500 to move in.

"The way we do it with transitional housing is we just put them up somewhere until they can save that much," Roman said.

But she said because transitional housing offers extra services and can have high overhead costs, "We might end up spending $25,000 while they save up that $2,500. And people don't have much luck looking for jobs while they're in shelters or transitional housing. In a lot of cases, it would be more effective and cheaper to just give them the $2,500 and get them back in a home, so they can get busy finding a new job."

Basic misperceptions and false stereotypes make it difficult to implement policies, Roman said:

  • 80 percent of the people who use homeless services once while facing a financial crisis never return.

  • Only 20 percent of the homeless in the U.S. are the stereotypical single person with a disability.

  • 40 percent of U.S. homeless are families.

    Shifting limited resources around is a painful proposition, and not everyone will agree it's the wisest move, Roman said.

    "But it's crucial we have the conversation," she said. "We're not just out here trying to provide services to people who are homeless. We're trying to make it so people won't become or stay homeless at all."

    For more information, go to www.endhomelessness.org. For information in Alameda County on homelessness services, call 211.