Homeless Numbers Can Be Tricky

By | Mar 18, 2014

numbersI used to sit in my third grade class during math sessions, daydreaming about playing basketball on the playground or going to the beach. The numbers scribbled on the blackboard were like Greek letters to me. My young mind just had difficulty with multiplication tables and fractions. Numbers swirled in my thoughts, with no clear meanings.

Today, I sometimes feel the same way, especially when I try to make sense of all the numbers swirling around homelessness in this country.

Take the issue of whether homelessness in America is increasing or decreasing. This is a numbers issue. Is the number of people living on our streets going up, or going down?

In San Francisco, California, they are saying that, despite investing $165 million per year for homeless services, the number of people experiencing homelessness in this Bay Area city has not changed in the past nine years. This city used to be the model for how cities ought to address homelessness: by building permanent supportive housing and getting volunteers from all sectors to help.

New York City was another national model. They said every person on the streets had the right to shelter. Today, the city are struggling with a 13 percent increase in its homeless population. It spends $800 million per year just to shelter people.

Los Angeles has always struggled with its numbers. Years ago, the number hovered around 80,000 but, after several bi-annual homeless counts, it dropped to 50,000. Everyone knew the decline was not because of a successful housing program, but because counting methods had become more precise. Today, it the number is 58,000, a slight increase. Most people are not surprised by the fluctuation of numbers, or by the recent increase.

Recently, Phoenix, Arizona announced that it had ended chronic veteran homelessness in the city. Of course, it only had 222 homeless veterans to start with, far fewer than Los Angeles’ 6,248 homeless veterans.

Phoenix’s number is specifically defined as “chronic” veteran homelessness. Not just homeless veterans, but chronically homeless veterans. In fact, most goals to reduce homelessness around the country are based on chronic homelessness.

But what does “chronic” really mean?

The federal government defines it as a person who has been homeless for one year or more, or had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past year, and has a disabling condition. A little confusing.

There is a good reason for such a specific definition but, for the average person, it’s like saying you will count everyone in the room by counting only the people who have been in the room for more than 10 minutes and who also have a slight sore throat. Huh?

So many numbers. So much confusion over how to define those numbers.

Take the federally-mandated homeless counts that occur every other year. Last year, Los Angeles counted 7,391 homeless family members. With an average of three people in a family, that’s around 2,463 families.

The County of Los Angeles, however, asks every family that participates in its financial assistance program whether or not they were homeless in the last year. In 2013, the same year as the homeless count, 13,656 families in Los Angeles said they had been homeless sometime during the last year.

So, if we are talking about how many families are homeless in Los Angeles, do we only count the number that are actively homeless on very specific nights every two years? Then the number would be 2,463.

Or do we tally the total number over the whole 12 months? Then the number would be 13,656.

This sometimes confuses me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been daydreaming during my third grade math lessons.

All I know is that any number is too high in terms of counting homelessness in America.