USA: Counting the homeless? Who really Counts?

Across the country, volunteers are turning out to help count the homeless people in their communities. They will do their best, within the guidelines they’re given. But they won’t come up with anything like an accurate number. 

Part of the problem, of course, is that some homeless people will be widely scattered in side streets, alleys, parked cars and other places where they’re hard to find. One client at So Others Might Eat has spoken of spending three days in a trash chute.

But the more basic problem is that many homeless people will be deliberately excluded from the count………
Here’s why… 

Communities try to count homeless people because it’s a requirement for receiving funds under three so-called Continuum of Care programs. These programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. So communities have to use HUD’s definition of “homeless.”

According to HUD, people count as homeless if they are in:

– Emergency shelters
– Transitional housing, including hotel or motel rooms paid for by vouchers
– “Places not meant for human habitation such as cars, parks, abandoned buildings and on the street”

So people are not counted as homeless if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or if they’re in camping grounds or cheap motels because they can’t afford a month’s worth of rent or a security deposit. Nor are children counted if they’re in institutions because their parents are homeless.

Granted, it would be difficult to count homeless people doubled up or in motel rooms they’re paying for themselves. But ignoring the fact they exist is hardly an answer. And that’s what HUD did in using the homeless count and other data based on its definition to report on the extent of homelessness in the country.

As a result, neither the Congress nor the American public has a realistic view of how many homeless people there are.

And, if we don’t know that, how can we know, except anecdotally, how well–or poorly–existing programs are working?

The last Congress considered bills that would have expanded the HUD definition of “homeless” as part of the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. It will have another chance when it returns to this unfinished task.

What Congress should do is controversial, but the debate is really about who should be served by the COC programs.

This is–or should be–a separate issue from the issue of how we count homeless people.

Who would of thought counting could be so complicated?

56% of current media stories reported increases in the local 2009 homeless counts. 

This map (Link below) serves as a database of January 2009 point-in-time counts that have been reported in the media or on Continuum of Care websites. Red markers indicate reports of increases and green markers indicate media reports of decreases. Yellow markers indicate reports of increases in some subpopulations and decreases in others. Links to news story’s or CoC websites are included.

Note: Though all links in this map are live at the time that they are added to the map, archiving practices at online media outlets will lead to some broken links for older stories.

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