Friday, December 6, 2013

Homeless Population Numbers

A lot of attention is given to homeless population numbers.   Advocates use these numbers in their work mainly to justify a need for action in helping the homeless, and to prove that their work is effective.

You'll soon be hearing more about the homeless census, often called a, "Point In Time" count.  It is one of those activities for which homeless advocates get media attention.   Point In Time counts are a census of the homeless population, conducted on the same day and time each year - and usually held late at night (and into the early morning hours), when homeless people are settled for the night and least likely to be moving about.   Because homeless people are counted wherever they may be found, a lot of volunteers are needed to canvas vast areas of the city, looking for the homeless wherever they may be camped out.    If you want to volunteer for such an event in your town, it should be easy to find out how and when with a google search, or by contacting your local shelter.

Although homeless advocates make a big deal about this census of the homeless - the counting of homeless people is a requirement of the federal government, placed on local governments so to qualify for federal funding - the real benefits of the count are limited.

The benefits of the count are limited because the information gathered is somewhat flawed.  The biggest problem with these Point In Time counts is that not every homeless person is counted.  This happens either because the volunteers don't know where all the homeless are located, or more importantly, because many of the homeless avoid being counted.   These counting events are always advertised in advance,  so the homeless who wish to not be counted, for whatever reason they may have, will take measures to avoid the census.   They may get a hotel room for the night, or go hang out at a friends house that evening, or they may move their camp to a more reclusive location.   Advocates and census takers estimate that 25% or more of the homeless are missed during the count.   This failure to count all homeless people is important and should be remembered, especially when advocates and the media start spouting numbers regarding the homeless.    Recently, homeless service agencies have been proclaiming that they are making headway in reducing the homeless population.    Those estimates are coming in at anywhere from 4% to 70% reduced.   Considering that the count can be off by 25% or more, how can anyone honestly claim that they've reduced homelessness by, say 10 percent?

In regards to claims that the homeless population has been reduced two things should be considered.   The first issue is in regards to the language used to describe homeless people.  The second issue is in regards to the constant fluctuations in the homeless population.

Some years ago, President W. Bush made a speech in which he said that the United States should be able to end chronic homelessness in ten years time.  Ok, now go back and re-read the previous sentence.   There is a small but significant word there that most people overlook.   That word is "chronic".    The president's speech came on the heels of HUD's newly created distinction about homeless types.    Sure, to the average American, homelessness is a "chronic" problem.  But that's not what the president (nor HUD) was talking about.    People who are "Chronically Homeless" are a specific type of homeless person, and are a small subset of the entire homeless population.    Chronically Homeless people are those people who have been homeless for an extended period, or for several periods, and who have problems so severe that they are costing government agencies a great deal of money having to deal with them.    Chronically Homeless people go to hospital emergency rooms, have the police called on them, are sent to jail, etc, many many times in the course of a year.   In university studies done on the Chronically Homeless, each chronically homeless person can cost a city in excess of $250,000 a year.    In a city with a homeless population of 2000, approximately 20 to 50 of those people could fit HUD's definition of Chronic.   That's 20 to 50 people, each costing the city 1/4 a million dollars.   So, yes, it's pretty obvious that curing "chronic" homelessness would greatly benefit a city.  HUD has found that "Housing First" programs work best for chronically homeless people.   Once successfully placed in Housing First, these people become much less of a burden, and less of a cost, on everyone.  When a city claims to have reduced it's homeless population, it is only referring to the Chronically Homeless subset of the homeless population, and not the entire homeless population.    Some cities have been very bold in their recent declarations of reducing homelessness by 75% or more.   More than likely, they are only talking of the chronically homeless, or only homeless veterans, etc.   They most certainly have not reduced their entire homeless population by that much.   Words are important, and even homeless advocates are guilty of creating spin for their own benefit.

The other problem with homeless census counts is that they only count the homeless once a year.  Now, if the homeless population was a constant number that never or rarely varied, then that would be fine.   But the homeless population fluctuates a great deal along many different variables.

This is an extreme metaphor, but I think it gets the idea across.   Lets say you wanted to know how much light was reflected by the moon. And lets say that you decided to measure the moon's light on only one night of the year.   Just how accurate would that measurement be?   On February 8th 2012, there was a full moon.  But the following year, on February 8th 2013, there was only a tiny sliver of light coming from the moon.  It would be ridiculous to proclaim that the light from the moon had decreased 90% over a year's time.  Measuring the light from the moon on just one night of the year would not give us any accurate information.   Because of the many variables involved, we'd need to measure the light more often to get a more accurate assessment.    

The variables of the moon, it's rotation around the earth, the rotation of the earth around the sun, the axis tilt of the earth, the elliptical orbit of both the earth and moon, etc., all have an effect on how much light comes from the moon - and those things will certainly skew the measurement of light from the moon.    The homeless population has many variable effecting it as well.   The homeless population fluctuates with the time of year, the seasons, the weather, the economy, cultural changes, politics, over population, war, outbreaks of illness, the advent and availability of illicit drugs, changes in prison populations, the creation or deletion of programs to house the homeless, etc.   All these things, and more, prevent a homeless population census from being accurate, when the homeless are counted only once a year.

The main reason why I bring up these issues concerning the homeless population count is that people have a tendency to develop expectations based on such information.   But when their expectations are not met, they often become discouraged and lose trust in the system that is supposed to be helping the homeless.   And, when that happens, they usually pull their support, financially, and politically etc., making the work of the homeless advocates that much harder.    Certainly, the intentions of the people conducting these homeless population counts is good,  but good intentions are rarely enough.