The Veterans Administration is the second-largest agency of the U.S. government (only the Department of Defense is bigger). But big does not mean good. Can the VA’s glaring deficiencies be blamed on its size? Or should each case of malfeasance be laid at the door of an individual? Whatever the excuse, neither veterans nor taxpayers are getting a fair shake.
Very many vets are currently homeless. Every vet who is not in optimal health – physically and mentally – is one step closer to joining the army of people experiencing homelessness. Prevention is key: once a person hits the streets, regaining the status of “housed” can be incredibly difficult.
The VA has stated that many vets remain homeless longer than they were on active duty. When that announcement was made, it was estimated that between a quarter and a third of homeless veterans were tri-morbid, a chilling term that denotes someone in the grip of not just one or two, but three deadly forces – physical illness, mental illness, and substance abuse.
For anyone at all, the ideal would be to have the shortest possible interval of homelessness. The first priority should be shelter because, as the VA warns, the longer a person spends on the street, the more she or he will be exposed to health risks. House the Homeless could easily focus every post on this constellation of problems. An enormous amount of material is available about veterans getting the shaft. But we are eager to free up the space to rejoice about some good things, soon. Meanwhile, we will look at an “oldie but goodie,” then plow through the plentiful recent events.
QTC, Principi, and Peake
Several years back, the VA began outsourcing physical exams. Veterans applying for compensation would be seen by someone from the disability examination contractor QTC. Critics pointed out that this privatization presented a conflict of interest that jeopardized available care, and asked whether this function was being privatized to a harmful degree. Why else would QTC pay Jefferson Consulting Group thousands to lobby for it?
From 2000 to 2004, Lt. Gen. James Peake held the post of Army Surgeon General. Despite his exalted rank and powerful position, he declared that the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Hospital came as a complete surprise to him. Then, he sat on the QTC board of directors, helping it make hundreds of millions of dollars from VA contracts. In 2007, Peake became Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Strangely enough, another person from QTC’s upper echelon had already held the same government post. Anthony Principi’s career trajectory veered from QTC to the VA and back to QTC. At the website of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association (for victims of Agent Orange) a writer, probably webmaster John Paul Rossie, says Pricipi’s name makes the blood of veterans boil with anger.
Another Pervasive Problem
VA researchers published a study in 2011 that showed a fatal overdose rate among its patients that was nearly twice the national average. This is the subject of a very long piece which highlights several individual case histories featuring deadly overmedication. About the efforts of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), reporter Joshua B. Pribanic wrote:
Prescriptions for four opiates – hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine – have surged by 270 percent in the past 12 years, according to data CIR obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The introductory text of a CIR video also tells the story:
Among military veterans, the problem of painkiller abuse is especially striking… And yet the department continues prescribing veterans increasing amounts of powerful painkillers, enabling their addictions and hindering their recovery from war.
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans in 100,000 Homes Campaign Communities,” VA.gov, November 2011
Source: “Corporate profiteering against Iraq vets?,” Salon.com, 11/20/07
Source: “Say NO!! to the Peake Nomination,” BlueWaterNavy.org, 2007
Source: “To Kill or Cure: Medicine for Veterans Raises Alarm About Prescription Drugs,” PublicHerald.org, 10/02/13
Source: “Video: Drugging America’s Veterans,” CIROnline.org, 10/11/13
Image by Kurtis Garbutt
I have learned that, before people can think outside of their immediate needs, they must have those needs met. I refer to Maslov and the Hierarchy of Needs.
To that end, I have turned my attention to the core economics of the situation.
I have taken the existing Federal Minimum Wage (for those who can work) and tweaked it with a formula (based on existing government guidelines) that ensures that if a person puts in 40 units of work in a week , they will be able to afford basic food, clothing, housing, (utilities included) public transportation and access to the emergency room, wherever that work is done throughout the United States.
This will end homelessness for over 1,000,000,000 people instantly and prevent economic homelessness for all 20,000,000,000 minimum wage workers (immigrants included.)
You can find more details in my 2nd book, Looking up at the Bottom Line, and on the website www.UniversalLivingWage.org.
In my third book, Livable Incomes: Solutions that Stimulate the Economy, I deal with the Prevention of Homelessness. This includes fixing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for those who cannot work. From my perspective, looking at our capitalistic society the economy is paramount. This enables us to meet people’s basic needs.
People can either work or they can’t. At the lowest level, The Federal Government has set two standards: the Federal Minimum Wage for those who can work and SSI for those who cannot work.
Not surprisingly, the National Conference of US Mayors has said that a full time minimum wage worker cannot get into and keep (over time) a one bedroom apartment anywhere in the US. That wage is $7.25 per hour. The SSI stipend for people who cannot work is about half of that failed amount at $4.22 per hour.
Our approach to fixing this problem is different than that being promoted by the President (one size fits all) in that we recognize that we are a nation of a thousand plus economies. As a result, our formula indexes to the local cost of housing. In this fashion, if someone puts in 40 units of work (be it from one job or more) they will be able to afford the basics in life…food, clothing and shelter as outlined.
We have addressed the SSI standard in a similar fashion.
Since we devised our formula in 1997, the United States Military has converted its pay system to encompass our tenet of “Geographic Considerations” and changed from VAH, Variable Housing Allowance to BAH, Base Housing Allowance. Since then, the federal Government has similarly created “Locality Pay,” so that when people are transferred to a more expensive area, they are compensated.
Now it’s just, We The People, who are not supported this concept. As a result, 3.5 million people will again fall out of the work force and into homelessness again this year.
Image: 401(K) 2012
The phrase “falsified records” sounds bad in any discussion about government, and “systemic cover-up” sounds even worse. In May, Eric Shinseki was left with no choice but to resign as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, despite reducing veteran homelessness by 24%, and earning praise from the President. Dan Roberts reported for The Guardian:
Speaking to a conference of homeless groups, the veterans affairs secretary revealed that his internal investigation had now confirmed a report by the independent inspector general that the problems spread far beyond initial revelations in Phoenix.
What was being covered up was a gigantic backlog of cases, each one representing a veteran needing medical care. Many chronically ill veterans died waiting for diagnostic appointments or hospital admission. At first it looked like only a few VA facilities harbored irregularities, but as investigation continued, a widespread pattern of misconduct became evident. Like a true leader, Shinseki took personal responsibility – justified or not – for the “systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity” that plagues the system.
Last week Shinseki’s replacement, Robert McDonald, announced plans to fire at least 40 high-ranking VA employees, and maybe as many as 1,000. He wants to hire 28,000 additional medical professionals, including 2,500 specialists in mental health. It would seem that the nation’s second-largest bureaucracy also needs translators to help the intended beneficiaries figure it out. Journalist Siri Srinivas of The Guardian interviewed Jason Hansman, an official of IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America):
Hansman explains that there are thousands of resources offered by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, but these are complicated and exist in silos, and vets are expected to navigate them on their own.
Shad Meshad, founder of the National Veterans Foundation, sees the VA as a bloated entity into which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are pumped with disproportionately paltry results. He told Srinivas, “It doesn’t work and it hasn’t worked for 50 or 60 years.”
Sometimes, it does work – as reported by Bill Briggs, who became acquainted with 38-year-old Marine and Army veteran Louie Serrano, now employed by a civilian firm and earning a very good salary. But Serrano cannot forget the extremely long and bumpy road he traveled, nor the fact that thousands of his fellow vets are still trying to follow that road to a place of help and healing. Briggs writes,
Serrano, who exited the military in 2004…was having trouble sleeping and focusing at work. He thinks those were possible remnants from his final deployment: helping coordinate the care of wounded locals and troops flown from Afghanistan and Iraq to his post at a U.S. military hospital in Germany.
Along with depression and tinnitus, he had knee and back problems. At the VA center in Loma Linda, California, a mental health counselor told him there was nothing wrong. Serrano scratched the Veterans Administration off his friend list and turned his back on it for years – which, many critics claim, is exactly the point. Faced with unanswered phone calls, long waits, difficulty in scheduling, and uncaring responses, many veterans feel that the neglect is purposeful, aimed at making clients feel so rejected, they will just give up.
This cultivated indifference added years to Serrano’s period of wandering in the wilderness, and he claims that many others have become equally hopeless and fed up, telling the reporter:
A lot of veterans are off the grid, living in the mountains, below underpasses. A lot of those veterans did go and ask the VA for help. But if they didn’t get the help they needed, they said, ‘Screw the VA, we’ll do it on our own.’
Source: “Eric Shinseki resigns over Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal,” TheGuardian.com, 05/30/14
Source: “’They don’t care': how a homeless army veteran was forgotten by the VA,” TheGuardian.com, 11/11/14
Source: “In From the Cold: One Veteran’s Journey Out of Homelessness,” NBCNews.com, 11/12/14
Image by DVIDSHUB
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a hot topic these days among civilians. In schools and even in the professional arena, contact sports are being rethought from the ground up. An irrefutable link between head trauma and homelessness has been identified. For example, an April headline from the Icahn School of Medicine stated, “Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes.” TBI is closely linked to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which a lot of homeless people suffer. Modern warfare is very efficient at producing brain trauma, which has even been called the “signature wound” of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Military.com says,
Common causes of TBI include damage caused by explosive devices, falls and vehicle or motorcycle accidents. Most reported TBI among… service members and veterans has been traced back to Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs…
Medical technology has created the magnetic resonance imaging scanner, a machine that can measure brain injury. For research to go forward in a scientifically valid way, doctors would have to take MRI “before” scans of their human subjects, batter their heads, and then take “after” scans for comparison purposes. This would be an unconscionable violation of medical ethics.
But what if researchers had a large pool of newly-recruited soldiers to draw from, with extensive medical histories on record, from blood type, to weight, to recent inoculations? What if they took “before” MRI scans? Eventually, a certain percentage of those individuals would return from the field with brain injuries. “After” pictures could be taken, along with complete information about the circumstances of the injury, immediate treatment, complications, and so on. Researchers would accumulate a rich database for the eventual harvesting of medical breakthroughs, and/or to create improved means of preventing injury in the first place, such as better helmets.
As House the Homeless described last time, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman has written a disturbing history of the VA’s mobile MRI scanner. This noble device was purchased in 2007 and “unveiled” in 2008, housed in its own semi-truck trailer, the better to commute between the new soldiers at Fort Hood and the injured ones in Waco’s VA hospital. The $3.6 million taxpayer-funded investment was touted as “the most powerful mobile MRI on the planet.” Capturing brain images for the sake of medical progress, it would eventually prevent a lot of human suffering, especially among veterans.
But then, somehow, nothing happened. No fresh troops were tested before deployment; no service members with traumatic brain injuries were examined afterwards for comparison purposes. In 2010, North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr, as a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, addressed the VA:
This letter seeks clear answers about the shoddy administration of the Brain Injury and Recovery Laboratory in yet another effort to reinforce the need for proper oversight and responsible spending at VA.
Officials from the Center of Excellence assured Congress that the imaging program was on track, fueled by the cumulative resources of five grants which would fund its activities for several years. But then in 2011, research stopped, supposedly because the scanner produced images of poor quality. Schwartz says,
The machine has sat dormant for the past three years, plagued by a series of delays caused by mismanagement, mechanical failures and bureaucratic roadblocks… In a grim internal assessment, the center’s associate research director… wrote in March 2013: “I think there should be serious consideration of returning the MRI from where it came because we do not have the expertise to use it or care for it.”
While the rig is sitting there, a full-time technician has to perform daily maintenance checks. Turning it off and on would consume far too much costly energy, so it just stays on all the time. An administrator claimed that the mobile MRI taught the Veterans Administration valuable “lessons.” Seems like one of those lessons should have been, “To run fancy machines, hire qualified personnel.” If the machine itself is defective, why not get it fixed? Surely the power and majesty of the U.S. Government can compel a manufacturer to deliver a product in good working order. If Uncle Sam can’t do it, who can?
That is where matters stand at present, with not a single published study to justify all the hoopla and expense. Meanwhile, the program has not helped even one veteran of any branch of service, regardless of rank, race, gender, or housing status.
Source: “Study: Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes,” MSSM.edu, 04/26/14
Source: “Traumatic Brain Injury Overview,” Military,com, undated
Source: “Lost opportunity,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “VA claims troubled Waco MRI research program provided ‘lessons’,” ClaroSports.com, 10/03/14
Image by Jon Olav Eikenes
The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Bill Clinton had all stayed at the Shoreham. With 1,000 people in attendance, it still felt as if it was nowhere near capacity. The excitement and energy level was palpable. The din was almost numbing as we waited in line and slowly worked our way to the security checks. The president of the United States was coming! But the “participants,” as the name badge around our necks stated, were perhaps more excited that Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and Michelle Obama were also scheduled speakers. The original title of the conference, White House Economic Summit on Working Families — which is what attracted me — had now been converted to the White House Summit on Working Families…after all, this summit was about families.
Gloria Steinem, celebrated feminist, spoke to the importance of women in the workplace when she shared the European Union’s plan to legislatively ensure that every Board of Directors be comprised of 40% women by 2020. She pointed to studies that show that the presence of women in business settings introduces compromise and increased business productivity.
U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (a hero of mine) continued to set the tone of the summit when she announced that “one in five children in America lives in poverty.”
Business leaders such as Sheila Marcelo, CEO of Care.com, informed us that in three states child care now costs more than state college tuition.
Speaker after speaker echoed themes that called for paid maternity leave, flexible work hours, wage equality, and comprehensive health and child care.
Congresswoman Pelosi declared, “The bottom line is, 21st century families deserve 21st century workplaces, and Congress should pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and increase opportunities for American workers.”
Vice President Joe Biden shared the major sacrifices of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who helped him raise children after his first wife was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after Biden’s election to the U.S. Senate. He spoke adamantly about the role of “family” in all of our lives and the need to make major changes designed to support the structure and enhance all of our families.
President Obama also spoke of the many sacrifices of his mother as a single parent. He let it be known that she did whatever she had to do to provide for her family, including accepting food stamps. He went on to talk about the importance of minimum wage workers. He spoke of his proposed increase in the current $7.25/hour minimum wage to $10.10/hour. He said that 28 million people would benefit from his proposed increase to the Federal Minimum Wage.
I learned that, following the general group session, the Breakout Session on Hourly Workers would be held in the Ambassador Room. I located the room and placed my prepared documents about the Universal Living Wage on each of the yet-to-be-filled 450 seats where participants would get their marching orders on the proposed $10.10/hour minimum wage. I returned to hear the last of the morning speakers before people moved to the breakout sessions.
Not one to leave anything to chance, I again left the morning session and checked on the documents that I had left just minutes before on the chairs. They were gone! I had previously befriended a media person who had been setting up equipment. He directed me to the person, Bill Flanagan, who had removed my documents. I confronted him, got his identification and my documents back. He said that they “had not been authorized by the White House.” He worked for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I took my documents and returned later for the breakout session when I planted myself in front of the audience microphone.
When I finally reached the microphone, I shared with the people that in 2006, Beth Schulman, author of The Betrayal of Work, stated that “people are no longer using minimum wage jobs as stepping stones, but rather they are remaining in those jobs for ten years or longer and being forced to try and raise families on that wage.” I told the audience that:
$10.10 = “Old Thinking!”
We are a nation of over a thousand economies. One size does not fit all! If the goal in raising the Federal Minimum Wage is that we cross the Federal Poverty Guideline and escape poverty, but the raised amount is always less than the amount needed to reach that goal line, then how will we ever escape poverty? We won’t. “Something is better than nothing” is not true if we are forever economic slaves and if that approach also attacks small businesses. Business benefits from labor. They should pay “a fair wage for a fair day’s work” but not suffer for it.
Instead, we must index work to the local cost of housing, so that a person can afford the basics in life, wherever that work is done throughout the U.S. (without ending up living on our streets).
I then told them that I was embracing common sense and that today I had come with a solution that will fix the plight of minimum-wage workers/families across America!
Universal Living Wage
I explained that the Universal Living Wage uses existing government guidelines that ensure that if a person works 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more), he or she would be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation, and access to emergency rooms, wherever that work is done throughout the nation. This will end homelessness for over 1 million people, and prevent economic homelessness for all 20 million minimum-wage workers. It will stimulate the national housing economy, save billions in taxes, and stabilize small businesses across America.
Several speakers behind me then stepped to the microphone and asked, “Why are we were not demanding a Living Wage approach?” The sound of their questions faded in my ears as I stepped out into the hallway and proceeded to hand out information about the Universal Living Wage to the rest of the “participants.”
“You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”
– John Morley, 1st Viscount of Blackburn
More than a year ago, House Bill H.R. 1136 was introduced and assigned to a congressional committee, where apparently it remains. If passed, one thing this bill will change is how state and federal governments define hate-crime violence. Victims who are obviously chosen for their economic status will be included in the Hate Crime Statistics Act. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has just released a report (available as a 56-page PDF download) titled Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Committed against the Homeless in 2013.
The cloud of unknowing
Unless they set up a Google alert for the keyword “homeless,” most Americans probably have only a hazy notion about the extent of violence against people experiencing homelessness. Susan Sarandon, the actor and longtime activist, said to a Congressional briefing session, “Even though I worked with the homeless, I wasn’t aware of the level of violence.”
An overview of the NCH report published in the Huffington Post brings it all together and ties it up in a bow. Titled “New Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered by Government Data,” the article was written by Brian Levin, director of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Since the government doesn’t keep track, we look to NCH data and learn that in the past 15 years there have been 1,400 documented hate crimes of violence against homeless people by attackers who were not homeless. Averaged out, that’s fewer than 100 such incidents per year. Or one every three or four days, nationwide. It seems like we are hearing about such atrocities much more frequently than that.
But taking an average does not tell the whole tale. The numbers fluctuate for many reasons. One thing for sure is that, according to the FBI, far more people are summarily executed by their fellow citizens for being homeless than because of religion, race, or sexual orientation. Levin writes:
National data over the most recent five-year period of 2008-12, where comparative figures are available, showed anti-homeless hate homicides at 139, compared to only 36 for all other hate crime homicides combined.
The victims tend to be on the older end of the age spectrum. It only makes sense. Of the known perpetrators of these brutal attacks, almost half of them are younger than 20. The young are efficient aggressors but often unsatisfactory victims. An agile youth can sleep in a tree. Unsheltered victims hampered by age and disability are less able to find good hiding places and certainly less able to defend themselves from unprovoked attacks. Levin says:
Over recent years the NCH data collection efforts have documented beatings, stabbings, blunt force trauma, setting victims on fire, drownings, shootings, sexual assault, maiming, stoning and spray painting…. The NCH representative sample of nonlethal attacks, considered a vast undercount, rose 30 percent last year, although it is unclear how much of that rise is attributable to enhanced reporting.
There is no way to know how many incidents go unreported. How many bodies are never found? How many serious assaults, and even murder attempts, go undocumented by people who want to steer clear of the authorities, even if it means suffering from untreated injuries? How many such assaults are perpetrated by the authorities themselves, and how many of them go unreported? An entire industry is in charge of crunching numbers and making educated guesses about this sort of thing. The bottom line is, any number is too high.
In the days of the Civil Rights struggle, when Freedom Riders were enrolling voters in the South and determined crowds were marching all over the country, cynics would say “You can’t legislate love.” And activists would answer, “Maybe not, but you can legislate law.”
Source: “Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered By Government Data,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/14
Image by Ron Cogswell
In 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.
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
ABT, 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.
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
Two 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 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.
Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner
The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a biennial census of people experiencing homelessness. How is it carried out? Last time around, Popular Mechanics magazine offered this explanation:
In the third week of January every other year, thousands of volunteers across the country fan out for one night to count the homeless on the streets. These snapshots, called Point in Time (PIT) counts, are the only nationwide metric available to gauge the country’s homeless people living outside of shelters. Homeless aid groups, called Continuums of Care (CoC) in federal lingo, are responsible for these counts.
The object is to tally up, within a 24-hour period, both the sheltered and the rough sleepers. The unsheltered condition also includes living in an abandoned building, tent or car. Volunteers come from churches, agencies, organizations, temporary shelters, bad-weather shelters and other aid groups. The volunteers are out there slogging around in below-zero weather, concentrating on areas where the homeless are known to congregate. Ironically, these gathering places are called “hot spots.”
But it seems that on a winter night, any homeless person with access to a shed, culvert, stairwell, or any other possible hidey-hole would be there, and pretty much undetectable. This counting method has been questioned for other reasons, too. A family of six might be crammed into a relative’s unheated garage, which is certainly not a home, but the count would miss them. It would also miss a teenager sleeping on some adult’s fold-out sofa.
In Stroudsburg, Penn., churches have been facilitating “first experiences” where volunteers are urged to mingle with the homeless people who are there to eat. It’s a warm-up exercise to help volunteers get over the awkwardness of meeting people they might be nervous about. In practice sessions, volunteers ask one another survey questions; in theory, each survey takes about five minutes.
Out on the actual streets, nobody has to answer any questions. But it’s important for more than one reason. The information can help to procure funds, and it can also influence how society perceives the unhoused. For instance, the last count of Monroe County’s homeless indicated that “[m]ore than half were disabled, one in three were U.S. military veterans and less than one out of 10 had ever been incarcerated.”
So, with at least half of those individuals, there is no point in hissing “just get a job.” They probably can’t — they’re disabled. Of course, some disabled people are capable of doing some jobs with total competence. But with so many able-bodied workers unable to find jobs, what chance do the disabled have?
At any rate, the various jurisdictions can’t apply for HUD funds unless they turn in the numbers. The problem is, what with one thing and another, counting is far from an exact science. In 2013, HUD said homelessness was down by 3.7%, while the Conference of Mayors said it had risen 4% — a nearly 8% difference, amounting to a significant margin of error. We hear that homelessness has decreased in the nation or in a state, but reports keep coming in from various cities that show worrisome local increases.
Many municipalities also count the homeless in the off-years that are not federally required, and many encounter unpleasant surprises. To pick a random example, the area encompassed by Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in northwest Florida found that its 2013 school year ended with more than 3,000 students homeless. In the same territory, 168 homeless military veterans were counted.
And this is where things get interesting. More next time.
Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless count of unsheltered sets fed. funding,” PoconoRecord.com, 01/22/14
Source: “2014 Point-In-Time Homeless Survey Underway,” WUWF.org, 01/22/14
Image by Colin Davis