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The Biennial Homeless Tally

Homeless Person - Sunny UmbrellaThe 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.

Training

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.

Reactions?

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