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Counting the Homeless in Austin

Jeff BridgesTo satisfy the federal requirement for the information that is needed to fairly distribute available funding, the people experiencing homelessness are counted every year. House the Homeless blog has taken an extended look at the “how” of the annual point-in-time count, which could be described as “different strokes for different folks.”

In a way, it’s good that communities can use different techniques, because if somebody discovers how to do it right, they can share that information. Just imagine, if one city could figure out how to correct the numerous flaws, and create a process that is humane, safe, dignified, and productive of justifiable results. If a community could demonstrate a good common-sense approach, their procedure would no doubt be gratefully adopted all across America.

In Texas, during the stipulated time period this January, 300 Austinites under the auspices of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) fanned out to enumerate the unhoused. At the beginning of February, a newspaper report stated that the number of homeless people in Travis County had decreased by 39% since 2008.

For the Austin American-Statesman, Andrea Ball learned that in the field of homelessness alleviation, despite favorable statistics, workers “on the ground” are sometimes unable to discern much improvement. Many advocates, like Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, question the usefulness of the annual count, saying it’s a faulty measure. He pointed out that conditions on the appointed count day may vary wildly from one year to the next. Success is influenced not only by the meteorological weather but by the law enforcement climate, which may at any particular time “crack down” in ways that drive the chronic homeless further into hiding.

In the original reportage there was some confusion about daily and weekly figures relating to shelter admissions in Austin. Apparently, the total of homeless people, inside and outside, amounted to less than the number of people who use the inside shelter in a single day. Much depends on these numbers, we are reminded by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless.

Richard was invited to share his thoughts with radio station KLBJ-FM, and in preparation wrote out his thoughts, some of which are rather caustic:

Excellent news! The number of people experiencing homelessness has been dramatically reduced in Austin by 39% since 2008! Or so you think if you believe the front page headlines in The Austin American Statesman. It is not until you read the 3rd page of the story that you learn that the 2012 count of the homeless (2,121) in the woods, streets, and shelters was less than the actual daily number of people served in the shelters alone (between 2,650 and 2,750 on a daily basis).

Richard also asks how much sense it makes to count people at dusk or in the dark of night. He also finds the 24-hour concept to be flawed, and fears that trying to get it done all in one day is counterproductive. He writes:

Why don’t we count them over a two week period? Because the federal government is afraid of a possible multiple survey responses by homeless folks. The same people might fill out the questionnaire more than once, and skew the numbers. For starters, this assumes that anybody is willing to do it more than once. Do we really think that homeless folks will rush to complete multiple forms? They probably don’t even like doing it once. And the result is, the numbers are skewed even more.

We could best count the folks experiencing homelessness by asking Willie Nelson to throw a bash. We’d get the city of Austin to cordon off a part of Zilker park, suspend the No Camping Ordinance and the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance, and hold a three-day love fest called ‘Everybody Counts.’ We could count and survey the homeless to our hearts’ content. We’d get the highest head count ever, and bring more federal dollars to Austin than ever before.

This homeless count process that has been used since 2000 has always been flawed, dangerous, and foolish. But now the flaw is glaring and staring us all in the face, on the front page of our paper, and on the Internet, and if you think HUD is going to accept these results then you have another think coming. On the other hand, if HUD does accept these results then we’re all in bigger trouble than I think.

With the federal government setting the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, rendering more and more people homeless every day, do we really think we are decreasing the tsunami which is homelessness at the rate of 39% since 2008? How in the name of common sense is that possible?

The homeless community nationwide remembers advocate, activist, and hunger striker Mitch Snyder with great respect. In the face of controversy about the numbers he had cited, Snyder once remarked that the homeless can best be counted once they have been brought inside.

What could hasten that day? Please proceed to the Universal Living Wage

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Source: “Travis County Homelessness,” Statesman.com, 02/04/13