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The Cost of Prosecuting Homelessness

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Sometimes people have the most inane knee-jerk reactions to ideas. For instance, the idea of housing the homeless elicits howls of resistance — “Think how much money that would cost! It would be so expensive!” Well, O.K., let’s start by thinking about how much money goes into doing things the way they are currently done. This enlightening quote is from Elizabeth Dillard, executive director of the Homeless Resource Network in Columbus, Ohio:

Homelessness is about what happens in our emergency rooms. It’s about what happens in our jails, what happens with our fire and rescue, what happens when a building burns down because a person built a fire because he was cold.

Homelessness is about what happens in our libraries. A disgruntled San Franciscan recently warned his fellow citizens that since the Internet has made public libraries less relevant, the bureaucrats “scrambled around” to figure out what to do with libraries and decided to turn them into homeless outreach centers.

We live in a society that levies fines on people who obviously have no money, for the crime of having nowhere to live, and punishes them by providing a place to “live” that’s temporary, dangerous, and locked. Then we punish them further by putting marks on their record to guarantee they will never become employed, productive members of the community. Could anything be more absurd than the street-jail-street merry-go-round?

It’s worse than bad, it’s useless

Upon learning how Eureka, Calif., spent $13,000 to prosecute one person for sleeping in public, Arnie Klein, a retired deputy district attorney, called the judicial system a travesty. He elaborates:

The maximum penalty of six months in county jail or a $1,000 fine is a farce…. In no way will this prosecution prevent homeless people from camping on our public lands. Having 40 years’ experience on both sides of the table in the arena of criminal law, I would have recommended a more humane and cost-saving solution.

I do know for a fact … that money was expended to pay the judge, the bailiff, the court reporter, the jury, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor, as well as for the use of the courtroom, to pursue this fool’s errand.

On the other side of the country, in Orlando, Fla., public defender Bob Wesley had this to say:

Any time you have a court case, you’re going to have judge with a graduate degree, two lawyers there, bailiffs in the courtroom, court reporters — you’ve got to have a court, all to solve the problem.

From just south of Orlando, in Osceola County, Scott Keyes reported that, over the past 10 years, a grand total of $5 million has been spent on 37 individuals. Did this $5 million buy them houses fitted out with all the mod cons, and perhaps a swimming pool and a couple of servants? No, all it paid for was to put them in jail a bunch of times.

The charges were what are called “quality-of-life” offenses, which basically means it bums everybody out and ruins their day to see people snoring on the sidewalk. Never mind how the people experiencing homelessness feel about it — their lives don’t have any quality, and aren’t supposed to, because they screwed up by taking a wrong turn in life’s journey.

Some of the “bad choices” that have rendered people homeless include joining the military and coming back with a head injury; needing to escape from a spouse who turned abusive; working for a company that fires loyal employees the day before their pensions kick in; and accruing ruinous medical bills from being hit by an uninsured driver. Babies make the stupid choice of being born to homeless parents!

It’s worse than useless, it’s bad, and it’s costly!

Those 37 Osceola County homeless people piled up 1,230 arrests, resulting in 61,896 jail days at $80 per day, resulting in a cumulative price tag of $5,081,680. Keyes weighs the costs:

A far cheaper option than criminalizing and jailing the homeless is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. An average permanent supportive housing unit in Osceola County costs $9,602 per year, which includes $8,244 for rent and utility subsidies and $1,358 for a case manager (with a case load of 30 clients). In other words, each supported housing unit costs the county 40 percent less than what they’re currently paying to put homeless residents in jail.

For more on this question of costs, please see Richard R. Troxell’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line, pages 102 and 131.

Reactions?

Source: “Homelessness organizations look to house 100,000 by July,” Ledger-Enquirer.com, 01/12/14
Source: “Surprise! San Francisco Public Library Now a Homeless Shelter,” DailyPundit.com, 01/17/14
Source: “Hauling homeless into court a waste,” Times-Standard.com, 01/08/14
Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “One County Spent Over $5 Million Jailing Homeless People Instead Of Giving
Them Homes,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/05/14
Image by ThinkProgress

 

 

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Counting the Homeless Not So Simple

Homeless in IndyIn the realm of homelessness, there is always more than plenty of regrettable news to talk about. For instance, the newest fad is people thinking it’s cute to take a “selfie” photo with somebody in the background sleeping on the sidewalk. Let’s just dismiss that trend as beneath contempt and get back to the count of people experiencing homelessness in America. House the Homeless has looked at several different aspects of it.

Confusion arises from the fact that there are really two different counts. Responsible for both is the local Continuum of Care, comprising the state and local governments and other government agencies concerned with housing, as well as private nonprofits and community mental health associations (i.e., public nonprofits). From them, every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demands an annual Point-in-Time count
of everybody in emergency shelters, transitional housing and Safe Havens on a single night.

In addition, every other (odd-numbered) year, the Continuum of Care in each place is responsible for counting the unsheltered. Confusion arises over who is sheltered and who is not. Ivy Farguheson, reporting on the situation in Indiana, puts it like this:

The count defines homelessness in a different manner than school corporations or social service agencies. That definition also changes from time to time. In the past, those sleeping on couches or staying temporarily in rooms of friends and family members could be counted as homeless and still are by Indiana’s school corporations and almost all local nonprofits. Now, those individuals and families are not counted as homeless under the HUD definition. Those court-ordered to substance abuse programs such as some men at the Muncie Mission or others paying small fees for housing, including many women at the YWCA of Muncie, can no longer be included in the numbers.

It seems like this could cause a lot of logistical problems. For instance, the CoC administrators also have to report to the appropriate federal agencies how many rooms or beds their facilities contain, so the government knows what resources there already are in a geographical area that’s asking for more money. So the bed has to be reported as existing. And the person occupying it is counted as “sheltered” even though it’s meant to be the most temporary of accommodations. Meanwhile, that person is not being counted amount the unsheltered, or true homeless. Depending on how the numbers are presented, it can look like more beds are available than actually are, or it can look like fewer people are totally unsheltered than actually are.

So much depends on this job being done accurately and conscientiously. Taking a census is, after all, the vital first step toward directing federal funds to the right places. But social policy reporter Mikel Livingston brings to light something most people have probably never thought about:

The number of homeless as determined by the count is not directly related to the federal dollars an agency or community receives. In other words, it’s nothing like public school funding, in which a certain number of students translates into a certain number of dollars. Instead, the count is one of many requirements for those entities to be eligible to apply for funding.

Livingston writes about Tippecanoe County, also coincidentally in Indiana, and about federal policy, which results in the homeless being “severely” undercounted. He mentions some of the many glaring contradictions. In his own state, the 2013 homeless total was down slightly from the 2012 number. But he gives examples to show that “the number of homeless clients who went through just one local shelter hints at a much larger population,” concluding:

There are several things the Point-in-Time survey is good for…. But judging the overall size of Tippecanoe County’s homeless population isn’t one of them.

[I]n Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, 1,599 homeless people were identified during the 2013 Point-in-Time survey. But an accompanying study from the Indiana University Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention estimated that between 4,800 and 8,000 people experienced homelessness during the year.

The sad fact is that House the Homeless could fill its pages with anomalies and discrepancies related to the Point-in-Time count until the next one rolls around. We remember the great advocate Mitch Snyder, who once made the suggestion that the homeless could be counted just fine, once they had been brought inside. What a great solution! Meanwhile we look forward to the day when the phrase “homeless count” causes people to scratch their heads with incomprehension, because there will be no people experiencing homelessness.

Reactions?

Source: “ ‘Counting’ the homeless: Official numbers don’t tell the story,” TheStarPress.com, 01/30/14
Source: “Homeless ‘Point-In-Time’ snapshot falls short,” jconline.com, 02/02/14
Image by Valerie Everett

 

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Long Island Counts Its Homeless

Marines March in 2011ABT, the company hired by the government to count the homeless, collects data from the winter Point in Time surveys and puts it through a process called “imputing,” which basically means making a wild-ass guess with the assistance of some electronic device. ABT has developed at least 10 different ways of “imputing,” but no matter how it’s done, the company needs reliable numbers to start with, and that commodity seems to be in short supply. The methodology is far from being an exact science.

In regard to last year’s reported decrease in veteran homelessness, journalist Joe Pappalardo got some answers from ABT project director Alvaro Cortes and highlighted the part that critics had trouble with:

Even though HUD used different methods to tally homeless vets in 2010 and 2011, it compared the two years to produce the 12 percent drop.

That decrease might have been what Cortes calls “an artifact of changing methodologies.” Or was it what Pappalardo calls “an artifact of murky statistics”? For the purpose of receiving federal aid, how are the people experiencing homelessness counted? Statistician David Marker was designated by the American Statistical Association to answer questions from the press, and Pappalardo reported on their communication:

‘The biggest weakness of the 2010 numbers is that almost half of the localities didn’t collect any information, so in these communities the 2009 numbers were reused,’ Marker says. For this reason he prefers to use more reliable statistics generated in 2009. Comparing 2009 stats with those of 2011, Marker sees an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, with overall homelessness going down only 1 percent over the same time.

The journalist also contacted Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, which covers Long Island. At the time, it seemed to Guarton that ending veteran homelessness was at the top of a lot of people’s lists in Washington but, she said, “no one really knows how many homeless veterans there even are.” At the time of that interview, in January of 2012, she had not seen any decrease, getting more calls from homeless veterans than ever.

Last month in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as in many other parts of the nation, volunteers braved sub-freezing temperatures as they searched for non-sheltered people. Because more than a foot of snow fell in the area, only half the expected volunteers came out. On the other hand, midwinter counting has one advantage — the visibility of footprints leading to buildings where people take refuge. Timothy Bolger learned this by following Guarton around as she shouted questions at various abandoned houses.

But when footprints are evident, the people inside often decline to make their presence known, for any number of reasons. If they happen to be undocumented immigrants, there is no upside for them. They are not eligible for emergency housing or anything else, and could end up being deported. As the reporter eloquently phrases it, “the margin of error for polling such a transient group is incalculable.”

As for Long Island’s homeless veteran population, Bolger learned that mental illness and substance abuse are still significant problems. But help has arrived in the form of Services for the Underserved, a New York-based nonprofit vet group that set up a branch on Long Island this year and formed alliances with local veteran groups.

This may or may not enhance the accuracy of the next count. People who live in their cars, for instance, are very hard to keep track of. People in jail or in psychiatric or rehab facilities are not counted, even though many of them would have no place to call home if released — and despite the fact that these people are under government supervision, their statistics are not made available to the curious. Bolger goes on to say:

Suffolk officials report a more than 62-percent increase in individuals seeking temporary housing assistance over the past five years….

LI’s homeless coalition reports a 42-percent hike in sheltered people in the county from ’09 to ’12….

The population of people who are homeless on LI is by estimates up 18 percent in the five years following the 2008 Wall Street crash that caused the Great Recession….

Guarton expects the stats for LI’s unsheltered to be lower than reality.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless: More People Live on the Streets Amid Arctic Blasts than Stats Show,” LongIslandPress.com, 02/01/14
Image by MarineCorps NewYork

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Homelessness: Doing the Math

Hwy 87 Trail surveyTwo years ago, when the previous national Point in Time survey was done, Popular Mechanics magazine went back to the survey before that one in order to take a close look at how homeless veterans were counted. The first answer was that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had contracted with ABT Associates to count the people experiencing homelessness in America, including veterans.

ABT project director Alvaro Cortes explained how the numbers are massaged. This is called “imputing,” and it must be done because HUD knows how sketchy those reported numbers really are. For instance, volunteer population counters didn’t ask street people if they were veterans. And for some reason, HUD wasn’t counting any vets staying in VA shelters as homeless.

The official count is made every two years over a single 24-hour period. Some people are not found. Some don’t want to be enumerated. Joe Pappalardo describes the situation as it stood when he started researching the story:

In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people…. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD “imputed”– that is, they estimated — the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic.

In 2010 (and before), HUD’s imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.

As of 2010, ABT had developed at least 10 different ways to “impute.” This imputing, Cortes told the writer, is to “reach the most accurate count.” Here is a basic question: How can they possibly determine which imputing algorithm produces the most accurate count, without knowing the actual number as a basis for comparison? And if they knew the actual number, there would be no need to impute. It all seems very arbitrary.

Start with the less confusing part, the numbers of street people reported by volunteers. It’s understandable why some adjustment might be needed. Take the number from the actual count and hypothesize possible scenarios that would augment that number. Apply an “imputing” formula and extrapolate a new number.

But why?

But. Why did the number of veterans in shelters need to be “imputed”? You’d think those numbers would be accurate. How many veterans are in temporary quarters under the jurisdiction of the VA? Isn’t the military famously meticulous about record-keeping? Were accurate records of shelter visits not being kept? And if not, why not? Those figures are of immense importance to the well-being of so many Americans.

Another question. Are patients in VA hospitals, with no place to be discharged to, counted among the homeless? Because they quite possibly might be, the moment they get out of there. Counting homeless veterans isn’t easy, and it seems at times that the underlying reason for the project is not “how can we get an accurate count?” but “how can we fiddle with the statistics to get a number we can convincingly brand as accurate?”

Pappalardo asked some of the same questions and pursued the answers. A lot of places do yearly counts of the homeless, and in 2011, volunteers were told to ask each interviewee if they were “a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services.” He wrote:

The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night — about 86 percent in 2010 — and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn’t match up to the VA’s statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.

Okay, reconciling two sets of numbers is a good first step. Next: the part that critics had trouble with.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner