On a recent evening, Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff, walked in the dark calling out, “Male, over 25; female, 18 to 24.”
Homeless people rarely have the privilege of having an audience with the president’s right-hand man — much less, one on their own turf. But that’s exactly what happened on a recent evening when McDonough and a crew consisting of Secret Service agents, White House staffers and San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee took part in the point-in-time count of homeless people living across America. (Within 90 minutes, the team counted 144 people in eight square blocks around San Francisco’s city hall.) The participation of a high-ranking Cabinet official drew attention to this little-known tool that provides essential direction for governments and service providers. It also brings focus to a population that’s often hidden out of sight, forgotten on vacant doorsteps, under freeway overpasses and in emergency shelters.
“What I see here, what we just walked through, this is a problem. But this is the same sort of challenge we face all over the country,” McDonough says. “The numbers tell the story. And that’s why this count is so important.”
Here’s the formula: Sometime during the last 10 days of January (with a few exceptions), thousands of volunteers fan out across towns and cities across the U.S. to take a census of unsheltered street people. Equipped with clipboards and flashlights, they’re often assigned a small geographic area to avoid duplicates. The counts began in 1983 in 60 municipalities, as an increasingly visible population became homeless due to poverty, drug use and the closure of state-run mental institutions. Standardized methods for the counts were firmed up in 2005 and have since been refined. Along with figures from homeless shelters and transitional housing, numbers from the point-in-time count are submitted to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). From there, the data gives a local and national snapshot of the homeless population that guides service providers, Congress, HUD and other agencies.
HUD requires shelters to submit their data every year, but point-in-time surveys only happen biennially, usually in the odd-numbered years. Many large cities, however, choose to complete the census annually to keep abreast of the latest trends. “When we get an accurate count, the numbers tell us what to do,” Mayor Lee tells the San Francisco Chronicle. “Data drives action. That’s what this night is all about.”
Since the federal government introduced its long-term plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015, as well as youth and family homelessness by 2020, HUD has requested detailed data on those subpopulations. Some surveys require nothing more than approximate age and gender, but others, like Los Angeles’s survey, consists of a seven-page questionnaire asking things like, “Where have you been spending most of your nights?” “Do you have ongoing health problems or medical conditions?” and “How many times have you been housed and homeless?”
In Connecticut, for the first time, volunteers will ask the homeless about their specific housing, medical and employment needs to add to a registry. “In the past, each program kept its own waitlist for housing and other important services…Under that old system, providers and public officials had no way to gain a global view of the total needs to end homelessness in their community,” Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, writes in an op-ed. A “community-wide by-name registry,” she adds, allows nonprofits “to target the right kind of assistance to the right person.”
It’s not easy. Organizers target known homeless encampments, but there’s always the chance of missing some. Because of its huge area, Los Angeles has been one of the leaders in improving its methodology. To supplement a count that takes place over multiple nights — from the posh neighborhoods along the ocean (some of which had their first count this year) to deep into the San Gabriel Valley — the city also conducts a random telephone survey of the “hidden homeless,” which added an additional 18,000 to the 36,000 people already counted on the street or in shelters.
Even if volunteers are able to locate people they suspect to be homeless, answers are not always forthcoming. (“None of your goddamn business” is how someone rebuffed two women who work for the Department of Veteran Affairs in D.C. when they asked him.) Many cities equip volunteers with gift bags and resource lists, small incentives that may prod someone to answer a few questions.
A year ago, HUD reported that 578,434 people were homeless on a given night, a 2 percent decline from 2013. Exact figures from last month’s count won’t be known until municipalities release them later this year, but so far, experts aren’t optimistic about another decrease. (Already-released figures in Seattle show an alarming 21 percent jump from last year.) Why? Gentrification is driving up rent and decreasing the number of vacant apartments up and down the West Coast, says Katy Miller, regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Add to that lingering poverty and unemployment from the recession, a dearth of affordable housing and limited mental health care infrastructure, and it’s suddenly clear why so many are losing their homes.
But it’s not all bad news. Expect some bright spots in the declining numbers of homeless veterans, which has already dropped one-third from 2010 to 2014, thanks in part to First Lady Michelle Obama. Mayors across the country responded to her call to end veteran homelessness this year — a goal that’s well within reach, as New Orleans has demonstrated. The chronically homeless population should also decrease as well, continuing the 21 percent decline from 2010 to 2014. As Salt Lake City has shown, putting the homeless into housing can bring these numbers close to zero. Look for the common-sense solution of “Housing First” to once again prove its effectiveness when totals debut.
Many in the field believe the counts far underestimate the actual number of people experiencing homelessness. For one, the count occurs during the bitter freeze of late January, when many homeless aren’t living on the street. The calendar assumption seems to be that the homeless will be more likely to enter the shelter when it’s cold outside and thus be counted, but they could also take refuge in a vehicle or seek protection in a church basement. The head counts are “hit or miss,” says Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a homeless rights group. “Those whom they could see, they counted,” he writes in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Point-in-time counts are a minimum number, always. They undercount hidden homeless populations because homeless persons are doubling up with the housed or cannot be identified by sight as homeless.” A quick look at other studies support Boden’s claim, including data released by the U.S. Department of Education, which reports that the number of homeless students has nearly doubled since the 2006-07 school year, to 1.2 million.
Point-in-time surveys do provide a snapshot taken at roughly the same time, a HUD official notes, which can “benchmark progress” with some confidence every two years — assuming that the face of homelessness is not changing. Some advocates fear that the largest new population of homeless — families who’ve lost their homes in the recession and are bouncing between couches, cheap motels and other temporary residences— are not being identified since they don’t “look homeless” to survey volunteers.
In addition to families, youth are most often among the undercounted, Boden says. Unaccompanied homeless youth are referred to as an “invisible population” because they’re particularly difficult to count. Studies attempting to estimate the total range from 22,700 to 1.7 million, a huge disparity. To improve count accuracy, HUD has partnered with a number of other agencies for a program called “Youth Count!” Since 2013, these groups have tried to attract youth homeless into shelters for the one-night counts with free meals and activities. They also approach homeless youth earlier in the day, when they’re likely easier to find at hotspots for young people like malls or recreation centers, LGBT-focused agencies and schools.
Unfortunately, while this system counts those down-and-out on the streets, it does little to track those who are grappling with housing insecurity — the very people which may be counted among this country’s homeless during the next point-in-time survey.