National Coalition Answers Questions About Census

This is written exchange between the editors of the Homeless Grapevine and Barbara Duffield of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Barbara Duffield, NCH education specialist, prepared this position paper on behalf of the National Coalition for Homeless.

      Question: A Census Bureau report noted that 280,527 people were counted in homeless shelters, at soup kitchens, on the streets and at other places in 2000. What does this number mean?

      Answer:  This  number was taken from a report released in February as part of the documentation for its decision not to adjust Census numbers for various statistical factors. In the case of people counted at emergency and transitional shelters, soup kitchens, and identified outdoor locations, the Census attempted to adjust the numbers to account for people who were not present on the day of the count, but who normally would be present at those locations. However, due to problems in data collection, the Census Bureau was unable to make those adjustments. The Census Bureau has concerns about the quality of this data, and will not release the without accompanying discussion and documentation of quality issues. The Census Bureau is also investigating the discrepancies between this data and other information. A recent report by the Urban Institute estimates that at least 800,000 people are in homeless situations on any given night, with between 2.3 million people experiencing homelessness at least once over the course of year.

       Q: What are NCH’s thoughts about this data?

      A:   The release of this estimate confirms NCH’s concerns about the inaccuracy and  distortion of a separate count, as well as the inappropriateness of such a count as a measure of the magnitude of homelessness. A conservative estimate of known emergency shelter and transitional beds is higher than the total number of people in homeless situations estimated in the Census report. Many communities reported that the census missed homeless service locations, and/or that enumerators were unable to obtain information because of language differences. These facts, in addition to the problems with counts described above, mean that the estimate released by the Census cannot be used as a measure of homelessness.

        Q: Some argue that a separate Census homeless count is needed in order to justify funding for shelters and other service programs. Does the lack of a separate homeless count endanger funding for these programs?

       A: No. While “snap-shot,” or  point-in-time estimates of homelessness are part of the documentation required for some federal homeless assistance funds, local service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and local units of government are clearly more qualified than the Census Bureau and their enumerators to conduct such a count. Local communities are more likely to have the cultural and language competencies to obtain a service count of all the service providers in the communities (not just shelters and kitchens).In addition, local communities are better able to identify more of the places where people live outside---beyond the very limited targeted locations, that the Census utilized, which did not include abandoned buildings, campgrounds, temporary outdoor locations, etc.

    Q: The Census Bureau spent a lot of money and time attempting to enumerate people in homeless situations. If the Bureau is not going to release these numbers, what was the point of this effort?

     A: It is important to make attempts to count people in homeless situations for the same reasons that all people should be counted: to gain more comprehensive demographic information about communities. People experiencing homelessness have extremely low incomes, so the Census effort was especially important in order to gain accurate information about poverty.  This is imperative in order for communities to be able to obtain the Federal resources needed to address the needs of people living in poverty, including the resources needed to prevent and end homelessness.

     Q: What should Congress do?

     A: The discussion about the 2000 Census should center on the fact that ten years after the 1990 Census, people in the United States are still experiencing homelessness. There are numerous research studies that indicate the significant growth in the number of people without homes and at risk of experiencing homelessness. Yet, despite existing research, we have not invested our resources to end homelessness even after years of incredible economic growth. Congress should not waste time arguing about how many people are experiencing homelessness, but rather focus on efforts to end homelessness through affordable housing, livable incomes, accessible and comprehensive health care, and the protection of civil rights.

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH published in Cleveland Ohio in July of 2001.