Census Data on Homelessness Creates Dispute

by Barbara Duffield

There is a growing debate nationally to release the data collected by the United States Census on the number of homeless people counted in late March of 2000. Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has called for hearings on the Census count and has demanded release of the data. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless has supported the release of data to show the vast undercount by the census and flaws in counting homeless people over only three days.

 The National Coalition for the homeless does not believe that it will be useful to release the data, and released this statement. NCH believes that people without housing should be counted by the census for same reasons that people with housing should be counted—in order to have more comprehensive demographic information about communities, including more accurate data on poverty. However, NCH opposes a separate “count” of people in homeless situations because such a number would be, by its very nature, both inaccurate and misleading, and therefore lead to uninformed decision making by policymakers. A separate “homeless count” would be inaccurate because:

   *Logistically, it is impossible to count all the people experiencing homelessness at any point in time. Many people in homeless situations stay in locations unknown or unreachable by enumerators, such as abandoned building, campgrounds, cars, or share an accommodation temporarily with other people due lack of alternative arrangements (commonly referred to as “doubled up”).One national study of people who had experienced homeless found that the most common places were makeshift housing, such as tents, boxes, caves, or boxcars.

    *Data gathered from shelters only reflect the capacity of shelters (i.e. available shelter beds). Yet many shelters are full, and regularly turn people away due to lack of capacity. Last year the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that 23 percent of requests for emergency shelter went unmet due to lack of available beds. In addition, many shelters have eligibility rules that prevent certain groups of people(two-parent families, families with boys over the age 12, people with addition disorders, disabled people, people with no incomes) from accessing shelter. People who are turned away from shelter are forced to live in other places, such as doubled-up with other people, in outside locations, in cars, campground etc. A separate homeless count, would be misleading because:

     *People experiencing homelessness are not a static population. In most cases, homelessness is not a permanent condition, but a state of extreme poverty marked by a temporary lack of housing. People move in and out of homelessness throughout time, such that more people will experience homeless over the course of time than at any one point in time. For example, a study of the public shelter system in New York City and Philadelphia found that in New York City, a single shelter bed accommodates four different people in the course of a year, while in Philadelphia, each bed accommodates six different persons per year. A one-day, or “snap-shot” estimation of homelessness therefore distorts the reality of homelessness for most people who experience it. A recent study by the Urban Institute estimates that at least 2.3 million people, and as many as 3.5 million people, will experience homelessness at least once over the course of a year.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH Cleveland Ohio published in July 2001