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The Problematic Homeless Veteran Count

The only place where an accurate count is possible.

The only place where an accurate count is possible.

Last time, we noticed the irony of veterans who have survived war coming home to die in the streets of America. More irony can be found in the fuss made over the process of counting homeless veterans, which may not be very important after all; and in the amount of energy that fuss drains from efforts to remedy the situation. In February of this year, the county that includes Tampa, Fla. did a homeless count. Keith Morelli wrote:

The results showed a slight drop in the number of homeless — but a 47 percent bump in the number of homeless veterans and their families, from 170 last year to 250 this year. Homeless veterans accounted for 11 percent of the homeless population in Hillsborough County, and the spike in their numbers wiped out substantial decreases among other demographics, the survey concluded.

The reporter quoted Sara Romeo, director of the veterans assistance program Tampa Crossroads, who spoke of the difficulty of achieving an accurate count because vets may be suspicious, mistrustful, and flat-out uncooperative. Others in the helping professions confirm this observation, and note that the longer someone is on the streets, the more mistrustful he or she may become.

Vets who have sought help for medical and/or psychological damage and found obstruction and indifference often give up. Some purposefully hide: these are people who were trained to endure hardship, to conceal themselves, to improvise and live off the land. A veteran who does not want to be bothered can more easily get “lost” than, for instance, a civilian single mother with a few children.

More Opportunity to Get it Wrong?

The VA had better be good at counting, because it offers its services as the counter of not only veterans, but whole homeless populations. Gale Holland reported that 16 jurisdictions have signed on, while others, including Los Angeles County (her beat) turned down the opportunity. By the last estimate, the county contains 9% of the entire nation’s homeless, including 6,000 veterans. Holland wrote:

Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs offered the county an estimated $772,000 to fund a 2014 homeless count…. The [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] commission, made up of 10 mayoral and county supervisor appointees, said that negotiations with the VA over the contract had broken down. [Executive director Mike] Arnold said the VA’s “contracting bureaucracy” was to blame….

…To allow for historical comparisons and avoid the misleading appearance of a sudden drop, HUD in 2014 will publish L.A. numbers with and without the hidden homeless data.

That last sentence is a clue to the impossibility of knowing how many homeless vets are out there. For this and other reasons, grant-writing expert Jake Seliger responded to Holland’s piece. What he gathered from it was that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority claimed a homeless number of 54,000, but the federal authority disagreed. As a result, HUD used its number of 36,000, thus causing the statistical disappearance of 18,000 people experiencing homelessness. “Or any other number you care to make up” is a phrase Seliger uses, then he drops the bomb and reveals that none of the guesses matters, because:

HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds…allocate money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas… Neither number is going to lead to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds.

Joel John Roberts of PovertyInsights.org wrote of the Los Angeles controversy,

Taking responsibility for housing the most impoverished Americans is hard. It is much easier to steer the conversation toward why our counting of them is inaccurate.

The debate is an insult to those on the streets. Allowing so many people to be homeless—more than the total population of some American towns—is a joke. And that joke is on the people living on the streets.

Reactions?

Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Source: “LA County’s homeless population difficult to quantify,” LATimes.com,07/04/14
Source: “The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications,” Seliger.com, 07/07/14
Source: “Political Homeless Numbers: Can We Count On It?,” PovertyInsights.org, 07/08/14
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