Each city has its own particular culture and problems, and it’s instructive to pick one out for a closer look. Part of the uniqueness of the homelessness picture in Washington, D.C., is that it is America’s capital. To some observers this implies that whatever the government does ought to happen there more efficiently, more sanely, and more humanely than anywhere else. Otherwise, how can it claim to be a “capital”? The word comes from Latin, and relates to the head. If the head is sick, how can any other part of the body be well?
Kathryn Baer provides a really stunning breakdown of all the latest numbers, and none of them are good. She mentions the most recent one-night count of people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia:
On a night late last January, 1,231 families in the District were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. This represents a one-year increase of about 25.2% — and a mind-boggling increase of 109.7% over 2008.
At this one point in time, 2,236 children were homeless and with parents or other caretakers.
Washington, D.C., is surrounded by the six of the 10 richest counties in the the nation — for instance, Fairfax County. There, the count found 1,534 homeless individuals, one-third of them children. Young students from Capitol Hill Montessori participated in a program, run by a government agency and the National Geographic Society, designed to “use geographic information systems and local data to bring light to social causes.” Using data from the education department, they created a map illustrating how many homeless students are enrolled in each D.C.-area school.
At the beginning of this year, Washington recreation centers were repurposed as family shelters, but few parents feel safe in them, and fears over children’s safety have sparked rebellious attitudes. Azmat Khan wrote:
Seventy-nine homeless families are currently suing the city over the makeshift conditions, and on Monday, a D.C. Superior Court Judge ordered the city to immediately provide more private rooms for families as the class-action lawsuit plays out.
After a series of welfare motels and horrible apartments from which they were frequently evicted, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived with her mother and brothers in the shelter that used to be D.C.’s General Hospital. Shamika Young allowed her daughter to leave the premises with a trusted family friend, and it was probably a fatal decision. Relisha’s fate is still unknown, but the margin for hope is between slim and nonexistent.
Her disappearance can’t be blamed on the shelter administration. It’s not a prison, and those who suggest that the authorities perform bed checks, or take other intrusive measures, are misguided. Even homeless parents are entitled to some dignity, and the degree of surveillance necessary to prevent a similar occurrence would be unconscionable.
On the other hand
However… there is absolutely no doubt that Relisha hated the shelter, described as a “grim place with bedbugs and no playground.” A Washington Post piece by Theresa Vargas, Emma Brown, Lynh Bui and Peter Hermann paints a sordid picture and gives a definite impression that the repulsiveness of the venue was as much a factor as anything else in Relisha’s disappearance. Relatives said she would pretend to have asthma attacks in order to spend time at their homes. Teachers and staff described her reluctance to leave at the end of the school day.
Why didn’t some family member step up? For one thing, if a family receiving housing assistance wants to take in a relative, they have to negotiate forbidding and complicated Section 8 red tape. And maybe Relisha’s mother would not have agreed anyway. One Post commenter wrote:
I’ve seen first-hand my own parents’ hands tied by “the system” when trying to take care of a family member child whose parent(s) effectively abdicate responsibility via abuse/neglect. There’s virtually nothing you can do until that parent legally releases them to your care or until the children are forcibly removed by the overworked, overburdened, underpaid, understaffed ‘system.’
The article also points to the self-perpetuating nature of such an unstable existence:
Shamika Young … also lived in shelters as a child. She was 6 years old when she entered Virginia’s foster-care system, where she bounced between homes until the age of 18, relatives said. About a year later, she had Relisha.
Critics can’t help asking why an unmarried teen in such a precarious situation would have a baby. There are many answers, including the decreasing availability of abortion. People with more empathy understand that maybe the father promised a home and stability. Maybe the young woman just wanted somebody in her life to love her — and a baby is the one person guaranteed to do that, instinctively and automatically. Personal issues aside, it is crystal clear that allowing so many kids to grow up in shelters and foster homes is beneficial to no one, and certainly not to society as a whole.
Source: “Over 25 Percent Increase in Homeless DC Families, Annual Count Finds,” PovertyAndPolicy.wordpress.com, 05/15/14
Source: “More Than 1500 Reported Homeless in Fairfax County” greateralexandria.patch.com, 05/23/12
Source: “Where do DC homeless students go to school? These tween hackers can show you!” MiddleChildInDC.wordpress.com, 05/04/14
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape DC’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Image by ArcGIS.com
Scientists studied men from a homeless shelter in Toronto to discover each person’s history of head injuries. They interviewed the participants (ages 27 to 81) using the standardized Brain Injury Screening Questionnaire. The team’s own report said:
Demographic information and detailed histories of brain injuries were obtained. Participants with positive and negative screening results were compared…. A positive screening result was significantly associated with a lifetime history of arrest or mental illness and a parental history of substance abuse.
Almost half of the participants had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can even lead to seizures. Among them, these numbers relating to the precipitating incident were recorded:
— assault, 66%
— sports or recreation, 44%
— vehicle accident, 42%
— fall, 42%
Since those percentages add up to well over 100%, obviously many individuals have fallen prey to more than one head injury. Usually, the first time was in childhood, possibly as a result of being raised by parents who were substance abusers, which showed up as a positive correlation. In men who were under 40, the most prevalent cause of neurotrauma was falling because of alcohol or drug blackouts. For those over 40, sadly, assault was the most common cause. The researchers also found that 87% of the injuries happened before the participants became homeless.
That research team was led by Jane Topolovec-Vranic, Ph.D., a clinical researcher in the Neuroscience Research Program of St. Michael’s Hospital. Meanwhile, another research project was in progress — the Health and Housing in Transition Study, conducted by Dr. Stephen Hwang of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health. Dr. Hwang collected data not only in Toronto but in Vancouver and Ottawa as well. Among his subjects, the incidence of TBI was seven times higher than in the general population.
An attorney who represents accident victims wrote:
[T]he victims of traumatic brain injuries so often have the potential to suffer longer than almost any other group. TBI victims frequently experience problems such as loss of memory, loss of cognitive function, physical impairment and personality changes or disorders. In simple terms, a person who suffers a traumatic brain injury may never be the same after the accident…. While a TBI may result in serious problems, the problems are almost always made worse if the victim cannot afford good medical care.
In Austin, Texas, House the Homeless conducted a health survey of 501 participants, which revealed that 83 had suffered a brain injury; 45 had experienced at least one seizure; 70 had a history of panic attacks; 175 reported themselves as mentally ill; and 330 said they sometimes need to stop and rest before they can continue walking to a destination.
Richard R. Troxell fought for years to exempt disabled people, including those with TBI, from being charged a $500 fine under Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance. With disability credentials, a homeless person is allowed to sit for 30 minutes to recover strength, and in extreme weather (over 100 degrees) any homeless person is permitted the grace of being able to sit or lie for a while. House the Homeless got the new rules written into the Police Procedures Manual and published small laminated versions of the rules for distribution to people experiencing homelessness.
This may sound like a trivial issue, but think again, and answer the Bonus Question: Which is more crazy — a homeless person with TBI, or a city that has spent over a quarter of a million dollars to prosecute one individual for violating a No Sit/No Lie ordinance? From Los Angeles comes the ludicrous story of how 59-year-old Ann Moody has been arrested 59 times and spent a total of 15 months in jail, mostly for sitting. The Los Angeles Times quoted Moody: “We’re human beings, not to be pushed around like cattle. We have a right to be stationary.”
Source: “Traumatic brain injury among men in an urban homeless shelter: observational study of rates and mechanisms of injury,” CMAJOpen.ca, 04/25/14
Source: “Almost half of homeless men had traumatic brain injury in their lifetime,“ ScienceDaily.com, 04/25/14
Source: “Homeless Men Have High TBI Rates,” May 2014
Source: “Homeless Grandmother Arrested 59 Times for Sitting on Sidewalk,” DemocraticUnderground.com, 05/02/14
Image by Alex
Last time, House the Homeless looked at how things are working out in Salt Lake City, Utah. Getting every military veteran off the street is a big priority there, as both the city and the state want to continue to lead the way toward the Veterans Administration’s goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by next year.
Freedom Landing is owned and administered by the municipal Housing Authority. The 110-unit transitional housing facility provides not only a roof but several case managers to help individuals focus on stability and re-entry into both the job market and society in general. At any given time, close to half the residents are already employed and preparing to launch out on their own.
The veterans who live in the repurposed hotel contribute to their rent, and the VA pays part of it. It appears that meals are catered in, but up until a year ago, the only way for a resident to prepare food was to keep an electric skillet or rice-cooker in his or her room. Last March, an underutilized TV room was remodeled into the Freedom Diner and stocked with food donated by the Mormon Church.
Two stoves were installed, one of them wheelchair-accessible, as are some of the tables and counters. People who like to cook are welcome to, not only for themselves but for sharing as well. The idea is to reduce isolation, provide a hangout for morning coffee drinking, and generally foster a sense of camaraderie.
Just two months ago, the Fourth Street Clinic announced its expansion plans, including a dental care center for the homeless, which hopefully will be fully functional by the end of 2015. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:
Dental care has been a major service gap for uninsured Utahns, as decayed or missing teeth erode self-confidence, contribute to unemployment and perpetuate homelessness…. Oral health care will be fully integrated into Fourth Street Clinic’s primary care services and delivered by a combination of paid staff, students, and volunteers. Fourth Street Clinic is currently engaged in a broad-based community fundraising campaign to raise the $450,000 needed to annually operate the dental clinic.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote earlier this week about the Family Acceptance Project, designed to alleviate the isolation and despair experienced by teens and young adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Research led by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University has shown that in any given year more than 5,000 young people experience homelessness in Utah. About 40% of them are LGBT, mostly from homes characterized as socially and religiously conservative. The Mormon Church is collaborating with other churches and organizations to prevent homelessness among young people by educating families and urging them not to react judgmentally to the news that a teenager is gay, bisexual, or transgender.
‘Support Salt Lake Street News Vendors, Not Panhandlers’
The slogan quoted above refers to the Salt Lake City Mission’s newspaper vending program which was launched last fall to help hundreds of people experiencing homelessness to make honest money as independent marketing agents of the Street Newspaper. The available information is confusing. Reader comments to the Salt Lake Tribune story about the program included this one: “I thought I’d get writing and news from the local homeless population but instead I read nationally syndicated opinions.”
Apparently this was not a true launch but a revival of an earlier version of the publication. The Mission’s website includes issues dated from May/June 2010 up until February 2012, with no indication of what happened between then and last October. But back in the early days, there was plenty of local material. Volume 1 Number 1 contained such stories as “Life of a Katrina Evacuee” and “Dying Boy’s Last Wish is to Help Homeless,” and the rest of the pages were all pretty much about street life. Sadly, less than two years later, almost every page included a “your ad could be here” type of space filler. May the newest incarnation of the Street Newspaper prove more successful for all involved.
Source: “New ‘diner’ will help Utah’s homeless veterans share a meal,” SLTrib.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Clinic opening to fill dental-care gaps for homeless,” SLTrib.com, 01/18/14
Source: “New program aims to prevent suicide, homelessness in LGBT Mormon youth,” SLTrib.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless sell “Street Newspaper” rather than panhandling,” SLTrib.com, 10/02/13
Source: “Salt Lake Street News,” SaltLakeCityMission.org
Image by Garrett
Salt Lake City, Utah, has boarded the Housing First train in a very promising way. To calculate how economical the solution is, the founders contrasted the cost of housing people in apartments with the cost of incarcerating them and the cost of emergency room treatment for all the various illnesses and injuries that can befall a person who lives on the streets. Cory Doctorow writes:
The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.
2015! That’s next year! Salt Lake’s commitment to the Housing First ideal began to flower back in 2005, when research showed that the state spent $16,670 a year on jailing and/or providing emergency medical services for each chronically homeless individual. These were people who had experienced homelessness for an average of 25 years.
On the other hand, it would cost the taxpayers only $11,000 per capita and per annum to provide not only an apartment but the attention of a caseworker. We couldn’t find a suitable graphic for Salt Lake City, but the chart on this page illustrates the same type of comparison for Los Angeles in a 2008 study. The revolutionary part of the Housing First plan is to attach no strings. People are offered the resources and encouragement to make positive changes, but the deal is unconditional.
Mayor Ralph Becker announced in January that Salt Lake City had “ended veterans’ homelessness” except for eight individuals who did not want homes but who were still being contacted by social workers in hopes that they would change their minds.
There may be some confusion, however. Not all homeless vets are in the “chronic homeless” category, which is defined as experiencing homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. Indeed, some online comments reacting to an MSNBC story indicate that either miscommunication or misunderstanding is in effect.
One commenter’s veteran son ended up living in a truck because he did not receive the help he was entitled to, a situation the commenter blamed on caseworker incompetence. A cab driver wrote in to offer a specialized tour of the city to “anyone who wants to see the real situation.” Another commenter served up a description that by no means resembles “no strings attached”:
Salt Lake & Phoenix have thousands of homeless veterans on the streets; and the veterans they are calling ‘HOUSED’ are in prison-like & all-controlling insane asylum complexes, where the veterans are baby-sat 24/7 & threatened with being thrown to the streets if they have ONE BEER while watching a football game!
Still, there is no doubt that many, many people experiencing homelessness have been helped. But despite all the good news, conditions are not idyllic in Utah’s capital city.
Only a few weeks before the mayor’s speech, Marjorie Cortez, writing for Deseret News, reported that in the previous year only five new units of permanent supportive housing had been added, and no transitional housing units. She interviewed Matt Minkevitch, who serves as executive director of private nonprofit social service agency The Road Home, about food insecurity and learned that during that year emergency food requests had increased by 15%.
In December, the city bureaucracy flexed its muscles and reminded distributors of food to the homeless of the necessity for papers, including a “free expression” permit, a waste management permit, and a food-safety temporary event permit from the Health Department, which must be in hand at least a couple weeks before the event. On the surface, they seem easy enough to get and not outlandishly expensive. Yet this has created big problems for The Road Home. After interviewing the organization’s community relations director, Celeste Eggert, journalist Amy McDonald reported:
A bill that passed the House and awaits final action in the Senate would exempt volunteers from the requirement to have a food handler’s permit to dish out meals to the homeless…. When the homeless shelter and aid organization learned of the health rules and informed volunteer groups, it lost 39 volunteer groups. As a result, the organization missed out on an estimated 5,850 donated meals…. Eggert says the organization’s winter-overflow shelter in Midvale received no donated meals in January and February.
The ironic thing is, 30 years of volunteer food preparation have not resulted in one instance of food poisoning or the finding of foreign objects in any meals.
Source: “Fighting homelessness by giving homeless people houses,” BoingBoing.net, 01/22/14
Source: “Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans,” ThinkProgress.org, 01/06/14
Source: “Salt Lake City joins Phoenix in ending veteran homelessness,” MSNBC.com, 01/06/14
Source: “Report: Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts making gains but food needs still unmet,” DeseretNews.com, 12/12/13
Source: “SLC city officials: Must have a permit to hand out food to the homeless,” 4Utah.com, 12/24/2013
Source: “Food safety rules block thousands of meals to homeless in SLC,” SLTrib.com, 03/11/14
Image by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority
These posts often focus on Austin for two reasons, the more obvious of which is that House the Homeless is located there. The other is that Austin’s display of leadership is always worth watching. Now it’s time to catch up again, because a lot has happened in the capital city of Texas, including the distribution of a white paper titled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!”
This document was sent to 1,424 mayors of American cities, along with a Resolution they are urged to sign and send to the U.S. Congress. According to the trim tab metaphor, the application of just a little bit of leverage can have an enormous effect. For those who like their information in e-book form, please follow the link to Livable Incomes: Real Solutions That Stimulate the Economy. The plan just might be the trim tab that nudges the rudder that turns the whole ship onto a new course. It calls for changes to the Federal Minimum Wage and the Supplemental Security Income stipend.
One adjustment would affect the lowest level of employees, potentially preventing millions of people from falling into homelessness, and allowing millions more to escape the homeless condition. For Americans who can work, businesses need to take responsibility for paying them enough that a person working a 40-hour week can afford a place to live (i.e., an efficiency apartment), utilities, food, and the other necessities of life. What a lot of people don’t realize is that many homeless people do work. How can you hold a well-paying job when there’s no place to iron a shirt or get a good night’s sleep? Housed people are much more effective workers.
For those who can’t work due to disability, the rest of us need to continue to help them with shelter, food, clothing, etc. The issue has nothing to do with political party affiliation — Democrat-vs.-Republican doesn’t enter into it. This is about getting America back on its feet, dusted off, and back in the role of the greatest country in the world.
The local scene
In January, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless presented Hill Country Middle School with the Curtis Ray Wilson Compassion Award. The school raised just over $6,000 to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive and New Year’s Day lunch, warming and feeding a lot of people experiencing homelessness.
The Austin American-Statesman is incredibly fortunate to have Andrea Ball on staff, a reporter who has written knowledgeably about homeless issues for years. Recently she reported on the homeless count, which officially has decreased for the fourth consecutive year. Starting from 2011, the numbers show a 16% decrease, and House the Homeless has already extensively discussed the problems with obtaining accuracy in these counts. Ball writes:
Regardless of whether the count captures the true number of people living on the streets, most can agree that the city has made strides in increasing the number of housing units for homeless and low-income people funded with federal, city and private money….
Over the past six years, the city’s supply of permanent supported housing units — low-rent homes that include support services such as job training or mental health care — has jumped from 374 in 2008 to 1,035 in 2013…. The city is likely to have more than 1,300 permanent supportive housing units by the end of the year.
Texas is particularly fond of its veterans, and in Austin federally funded housing vouchers currently make housed life possible for 355 veterans. Ball also mentions Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, which has been responsible for developing 3,400 low-income housing units over the past half-decade or so. (Richard calls Moreau a “great guy.”) Austin, keep on being a dynamic, fair-minded, sane and compassionate place, a great example, and a beacon of hope.
Source: “House the Homeless Nonprofit Releases 10-Year Plan to End and Prevent Economic Homelessness,” Yahoo.com, 01/30/14
Source: “The Power of Trim Tabs – How Small Changes Create Big Results,” ThoughtMedicine.com, July 2010
Source: “Subject: Hill Country raises over $6,000 for homeless,” Statesman.com, 01/22/14
Source: “Austin’s homeless population is down 16 percent since 2011,” Foundcom.org, 02/16/14
Image by Matthew Rutledge
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.
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
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
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