At the end of January, public officials and volunteers in communities across the county fanned out, over the course of night, to count the number of homeless persons staying outdoors or in other locations not fit for human habitation (including cars, abandoned buildings, and public transportation facilities like bus stations and airports). The goal was to contribute to HUD’s annual point-in-time count—the number HUD and most media members cite when asked how many people are homeless in the U.S. HUD also compares point-in-time numbers from year to year to determine if homelessness is rising or falling. As the agency puts it: to solve homelessness, we need to know how many people are experiencing it.
Unfortunately, these point-in-time numerations are not fully accurate. As Law Center Founder and Executive Director Maria Foscarinis explained last year, counts are not completed the same way in each community, often miss many people who are living in dangerous outdoor locations that volunteers avoid, and do not include people who are living doubled-up with relatives or in motels. We estimate at least 750,000 kids defined as homeless by the Department of Education, plus their families, are not being counted. And that doesn’t even include children who are too young to attend school.
Indeed, even people now included in the definition of homelessness adopted by HUD as part of the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Act are not included in the homeless “counts.” The HEARTH Act defines some doubled-up people and motel dwellers as homeless, if they are about to lose their housing. Yet they are excluded from the homeless counts.
This year, several of our colleagues have joined us in raising concerns. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project notes similar methodological issues, and observes that homeless counts obscure the real issue: a lack of affordable housing. And another colleague, who has asked to be anonymous, offers these reflections on her experience as one of the volunteers conducting the count. As she tells us, “the only thing that seems certain is that it was clearly an undercount of the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in the region. The only question is by how much.”
No method of counting homeless persons, particularly those who live outside, hiding in the shadows, could possibly be perfect. But significantly better methods exist, such as those used by Urban Institute researcher and expert Martha Burt and her colleagues, who designed and implemented the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients in 1996, and described in the book Helping America’s Homeless, by Burt and her colleagues. That survey, using sophisticated techniques beyond comparison to the “counts” now being carried out, estimated 1 million homeless people in February 1996 and 3.5 million over the course of the year. Given the devastation wrought by the foreclosure crisis and recession, not to mention simple population growth, it seems more than likely that these numbers have risen significantly. Perhaps more important, however, is Burt’s admonition that “the focus of concern should not be on the number of literally homeless people, because these can be made to vary considerably, depending on service capacity and definitions.” Instead, she says, what is important to focus on is that “a very large pool of poor people [is] living such precarious lives” that they are at imminent risk of literal homelessness. Unfortunately, that pool has only gotten larger, with more and more formerly middle class people joining the very poor.