Can We Trust the Numbers, More or Less?

By | Jan 22, 2014

Tally_marks_counting_visitorsThis is the month of the year that communities gear up to count the people living on their streets, as if this annual (or, in some communities, biennial) ritual is an inventory count of extreme poverty in America.

If federal officials are to be believed, the misery index of people living on the streets of this country is going down—by 4 percent, to be exact. They attribute this to the “housing first” approach, which prioritizes the most chronically homeless (in layperson’s terms: the most visible) people on the streets for permanent housing (i.e., apartments paid by government subsidies).

Many local communities have echoed the positive trend of the federal government’s published results. Of course, such results make it look like the government’s initiative to address homelessness (an investment of billions of dollars per year in housing and services) is succeeding.

But is the number correct?

Some critics of the national homeless count results would argue that homelessness is not going down. I wonder what the average housed person in this country would say if you asked if they have seen a reduction in homelessness. Probably not: “Yes! There are definitely fewer people on the streets.”

But isn’t the January homeless count an accurate reflection of the real number of people on the streets?

Critics would say that asking inexperienced volunteers to fan out and count people on the streets results in more of an educated guess than an accurate head count. After all, officials wouldn’t send volunteers into dangerous areas or ask them to enter street encampments with large numbers of people.

Some communities do use more “sophisticated” methods to count people experiencing homelessness, like statistical polling. As if counting people experiencing homelessness is as easy as polling voters to see which political candidate is the favorite.

With more communities passing ordinances banning public homelessness—i.e., sleeping and eating on the streets—people living on the streets are going deeper into hiding. They are retreating further into the hills, forests, and cracks along freeways and waterways.

It is hard to accurately count people who are hiding.

The number that really makes a difference, however, is not the result of the homeless count but the number of people being housed.

That is a number that can be accurately assessed.

And, over the past few years, more and more people who used to live on the streets are moving into permanent homes. This can easily be calculated by reporting the number of housing subsidies issued and coordinating housing numbers through homeless programs.

With the emphasis on “housing first” and prioritizing the most vulnerable people on the streets, we can infer that visible homelessness is decreasing. An affirmation of the federal numbers.

This does not mean there are fewer hidden and non-chronically homeless individuals. This is where critics may be correct. The number of people hiding from public view—those who are not visible to volunteers during the annual point-in-time counts—is going up.

So, is the number of people living on America’s streets increasing or decreasing? It all depends on which segment of the homeless population is being considered.

For the most visible homeless individuals, at least, the numbers seem to be trending down. More or less.