Homeless Counts and the Danger of Releasing Numbers

I did not do a good job of describing the NEOCH position on the release of numbers by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.   We have talked about this every year that these numbers come out, and a report is issued for Congress.   This is to prove to legislators that the millions spent on homeless services are worthwhile and not sending good money after bad.   In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were so many exaggerated numbers released by advocates, researchers, local government, and social service providers that Congress demanded some real numbers.  Now, we get this terribly flawed report with no basis in reality.  In fact, the first 20 pages of the report to Congress is a disclaimer of how unscientific these numbers are, and how each city attempts the count in a different manner.  There is no standard for the count, and there is no way for the information to be explained to the media/public in a simple manner. 

We feel that the annual count is a horrible waste of time and money, and the release of the data is harmful to our community.  Locally, our volunteers do a meticulous job of documenting every person who they come across.  This dramatically undercounts the population.  In other cities, they rely on huge estimates, because there is not enough time to actually count everyone.  HUD offers little guidance and does not throw out bogus numbers.   All the good numbers are put together in the same report as the fictitious numbers and delivered to Congress.  Some cities that use wildly excessive will benefit from additional funding and media attention.  Those cities who use understated numbers will be viewed as not needing the funding, and resources will go to other issues such hunger and literacy. 

The US Conference of Mayors released numbers at the end of each year.  These are equally fictitious numbers but at least they have no basis in how funding is decided.  They are also rely on the expertise of some staff in the Mayors office in a number of cities.  There is no pseudo-science involved in the US Conference of Mayor's report.  These experts can rely on calls for help or just a gut feeling to put out numbers. They all submit some facts to back up their reason for saying that hunger or homelessness has increased or decreased.  There are a lot of advocates who hate the US Conference of Mayors report, but I am not troubled by the report.  It does not purport to be a definitive number or based on some walking around looking at bags of clothing outside.  It is the opinion of Mayors throughout the United States about the amount of suffering among their citizens.  Some Mayors will use this to show how the federal government has failed while others will show how great a job they are doing as a Mayor.  This is a highly political document so it need to be taken with a grain of salt.

We have said many times that if you want real numbers government has to pay for them. They have to contract with universities who are trained to do research to come up with real numbers.  You could study nine or ten cities and then some rural and suburban communities, and then make some multiplier to come up with real numbers for the country.  How many of those living below poverty according to the US Census will become homeless in a 12 month period?  Is it 5%, 7% or 12% experience some form of homelessness?  Does this vary by rural vs. urban communities?  Do communities like Detroit with larger impoverished populations become homeless in larger numbers because the safety net is so overwhelmed?   These are all questions that need answered with real research by trained professionals, and it will cost money.  Put aside the annual count and any observations made from this flawed data.  It means nothing and there is no way to compare these numbers from a bunch of volunteers. 

Brian Davis

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