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Problems with Numbers

No ShelterMaria Foscarinis is founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (Her complete biography is found at the NLCHP website.) She calls for a commitment to the principle that “in a country as wealthy as ours, everyone should have a place to call home.” Homelessness is simply not a thing that should be tolerated in this country.

Foscarinis discusses two reports that came out recently, on people experiencing homelessness in America. Last December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found a 9% increase in family homelessness. Then the National Alliance to End Homelessness announced another set of dire numbers. Foscarinis has a problem with its definition:

The Alliance numbers capture only a very narrowly defined slice of homelessness: People in shelters or other emergency housing, or in public places.

Unlike some other organizations or government bureaus, the Alliance does not count as homeless the families that double up with relatives, or singles who are couch-surfing. Sometimes these arrangements are meant to be temporary, and sometimes they end unexpectedly because of personality clashes, inability to contribute to the household finances, or any number of other stress factors inherent in shared living quarters. The people who are staying with relatives or friends this year have an estimated one-in-10 chance of being literally homeless next year, in a shelter or on the street.

A lot of these people are experiencing “economic homelessness.” They are not bums or freeloaders. They may be working full time, but even so, the expense of an apartment is beyond them, even if they are lucky enough to be in an area where there are apartments to rent. This is why House the Homeless endorses the Universal Living Wage. It is believed that implementation of the Universal Living Wage will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers in America.

Getting back to the two reports Foscarinis talks about, both of them point to unemployment and the foreclosure crisis as the major causes of homelessness, which, frankly, seems fairly obvious to anybody who has lost his or her job and/or had gone through the hell of paying mortgage on time while unemployed. And even the government admits that around 40% of the homeless are unsheltered because the resources just are not there. Whether a family or an individual needs housing, legal help, or food, the safely net is in shreds. Foscarinis calls it a human rights crisis and she’s right. She says,

Last year, our country spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save banks that were considered ‘too big to fail.’ Now the conventional wisdom in Washington is that there’s ‘no money’ to help ordinary people who are suffering in poverty and homelessness.

As for the estimated six million American families that have been forced to move in with relatives, this is really only new for some Americans. Even in the decades when middle-class white America spread out into suburbs and single-family homes, minority families have always been squeezed together by economic necessity. New arrivals to our shores and undocumented people have always lived eight or 12 to a room.

For at least some doubled-up families there might be a bit of a silver lining. In a way — and this is by no means meant to sugarcoat or excuse homelessness — there could be an upside. For decades, sociologists have lamented the demise of the extended family. For a lot of different reasons, it is not optimally healthy for each nuclear family to be sequestered in its own little shell. Well, like it or not, many Americans have now been forced to move in with relatives or endure having relatives move in. That adds up to a lot of overcrowding, friction, and discord.

On the other hand, we can hope that at least some families have benefited from the mingling of generations and the increased contact with family members, or even unrelated families. In the 60’s, communal living was an eagerly sought alternative to the traditional nuclear family. Living with a bunch of people doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It would be nice if at least some people were able to find unexpected blessings in adversity.

The enumeration of people experiencing homelessness is a complex undertaking, and it turns out to be a touchy, tricky subject everywhere. Especially important is the definition of exactly who should be considered homeless. Also vital is the methodology. In Australia, the Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wants to change how homelessness is calculated, as Farah Farouque explains. There would be a new counting method, and the old statistics would be revised retroactively. Farouque says,

The ABS will revisit figures based on the 2001 and 2006 censuses using a new formula devised by in-house statisticians in a discussion paper to be released this month.

Among opponents of the proposed change, there is talk of inconsistency, and of goalposts moved in the middle of the game. It really doesn’t even matter if a new counting method is better or worse than the old method, because either way it will skew the results over time.

The thing is, the Australian government promised to cut homelessness in half by the year 2020. Homeless advocates believe that using the proposed method could magically reduce the number of apparent homeless by as much as one-third. But the actual situations of the people experiencing homelessness would not be changed. It would be a clever way of understating the problem, consisting of smoke and mirrors. The next census happens in August, so they need to figure it out pretty soon.

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Source: “Too Big to Fail? Homelessness Increases as Help Decreases,” The Huffington Post, 01/13/11
Source: “Fears over re-count of homeless,” The Age, 03/14/11
Image by Quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.