Saturday, December 03, 2005

The foolishness of counting homeless people.

I admit that I was wrong. When I started 10 years ago, I thought that it was a good idea to count homeless people in order to better plan for how to best serve the population. I admit that this was foolish and it is a useless undertaking that we spend a huge amount of money on in our country.

We just got the results from a one day count in January or February of 2005, from a number of cities in the United States. Cuyahoga County (pop. 1.35 million) counted 2,208 homeless on one day and found that 52% of that population were homeless for one year or repeatedly homeless over the last four years (long term). Compare that to Tarrant County Texas (pop. 1.5 million) where jobs are plentiful found 4,269 and 25% long term or Clark County NV (Las Vegas--pop. 1.65 million) 12,198 and only 16% long term or Philadelphia (pop. 1.47 million) with 6,653 homeless and only 7% long term. Washington D.C. with only 553,000 total population with 5,518 homeless and 32% long term. How can there be this level of disparity when Cleveland has yet to recover from the last recession? The other important number that is not mentioned is the number of shelter beds. Cuyahoga County has 2,000 beds, which means on that day in January we only had 208 people sleeping outside or in buildings. This is so far off to be useless for planning purposes.

Going behind the number in Cuyahoga County, we find that 4 out of the 5 largest facilities in Cuyahoga County did not participate so those shelters were just guesses. How do you guess how long people have been homeless? By looks or dartboard? The counters do not go into abandoned buildings which houses a large population in Cleveland. They also miss a number of the camps that are outside of the Downtown area. It is easier to count in cities that do not have as much vacant and abandoned property. I remember doing a housing take over in 2001, and every abandoned house that I went to had at least one person sleeping in it. Eventually, on the fourteenth house, I asked the guy if we could just borrow his house for the night and we agreed to clean it up.

The numbers are flawed and researchers will try to compare using these bad numbers, and government will find a way to cut resources because of lower numbers. Mark my word, Cleveland is going to get fewer dollars because we don't do a very good job of counting.

The other issue is that no one really uses the data for good. We have a serious problem in this community if 52% of our population is homeless for long periods of time. This has not changed any of our policies locally. No one is trying to change this situation or proposing a strategy for ending this problem of long term homelessness. By the way, Cleveland had the second highest percentage of long term homeless in the country out of the 56 cities or counties that reported.

Finally, there is a philosophical issue with taking the trouble to count people alienated with society. How about spending that time and all those resources used to count on providing housing, jobs or healthcare for the individuals?

Here is the top ten cities (based on flawed numbers) of the percentage of homeless based on total population.

City -----------------Homeless Pop. -------------Total Pop. -----------------%
1. Detroit, MI --------14,827 ---------------------900,198 ------------------1.6%
2. Orange Co. CA -----34,898 --------------------2.98 million --------------1.2%
3. Washington D.C. --5,518 ---------------------553,000------------------- 1.0%
4. Boston, MA --------5,819 ---------------------569,000 --------------------1.0%
5. Long Beach, CA--- 4,475 --------------------476,000 ---------------------0.9%
5. Los Angeles Co., CA 91,000 ------------------9.93 million--------------- 0.9%
5. Hillsborough Co., FL 9,921 ------------------1.10 million ---------------0.9%
(Tampa, FL)
8. Pasadena Co., CA 1,217 ----------------------144,000 --------------------0.8%
8. Multnomah Co.,OR 5,104 --------------------672,000 --------------------0.8%
(Portland, OR)
8. San Francisco, Co., CA 6,248 ----------------744,000 ---------------------0.8%

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

No comments: