Friday, January 07, 2011

The Dangers of Bad Statistics

County Paints a Distorted Picture of Homelessness

The County Office of Homeless Services has been circulating a three page summary of homelessness in Cuyahoga County. They have some nice photos of cute kids and faces of the broad spectrum of homeless people. The problem is the data contained in the document is extremely distorted and absolutely false. There is no qualifications about the data or even a citation for the source of the data.

The big issue is on the front page when it gives the total amount dollars raised by the office in public funding for homelessness of $31 million. Then right underneath that they list under "Who are the Homeless?" Setting aside the identification of a diverse group of people with the article "the homeless" problem, but then underneath they identify "6,066 persons were served by Cuyahoga County Homeless Service System in 2009." This is a smaller number then were identified as being homeless and served by the county in 1995 when I started at NEOCH (10,000 people). These numbers are based on the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) numbers, but that system is so flawed that it paints a distorted picture of homelessness. HMIS is the computer system that every shelter enters data for every single homeless person entering their facility. I just do not understand why they would release this information without any context, and without an explanation.

STATISTICS BREAKDOWN: Total dollars raised in Cuyahoga County: nearly $31 million in public funds.
Total homeless served in Cuyahoga County: 6,066 were served. FAIL!!

These documents were given to the new County Council and the new County Executive without any explanation or any qualifier. For the average person who has no familiarity with homelessness, they would read this document or glance at it and say, "Wow, we spend a lot of money on a small number of people." By dividing the number of people into the total raised would be $5,110 per person. So, to the average person or the person sleeping in the shelter they are saying if you just closed down all the shelters and services, you could eliminate homelessness by giving everyone a housing voucher for $5,000 per person for the year. This means the 900 children identified as homeless by Cuyahoga County each could be receiving $5,000 from the system. A family of three, Mom and two kids, would be able to get a voucher worth $15,000 a year. Every homeless person measured in Cuyahoga County should be able to find a place to rent for $426 per month for a single bedroom or $852 for a two bedroom apartment by just dividing the $31 million up as housing vouchers. This could thus end homelessness for the 6,000 homeless people measured in Cleveland/Cuyahoga County for the year.

I, as a policy wonk, understand that the $31 million also involves shelter plus care housing vouchers, and the building and upkeep of the shelters. I know that the numbers that they are using are so low that they are useless for the community. I know that there are about five people waiting for every shelter bed in Cleveland, but for many reasons they have decided not to use the shelters. I know that the OHS count for one day is 2,236 people in January 26, 2009 coordinated by the Office of Homeless Services, and we know that the majority of the population is using the shelters for less than 30 days. So, it does not make sense that on one day there is 2,236 people, but over a year there are only 3 times that number. We know that those numbers do not include anyone sleeping in abandoned buildings and it does not include those sleeping on the streets. I understand that the HMIS data collection system is so flawed that it paints a distorted picture of homelessness. I know that there are many people who are served by the various agencies and never get entered in HMIS so they never get counted. I know that the definition of homelessness used by Cuyahoga County leaves aside many people who sleep on couches or stay in motels, but the general public does not know these things. When they see this document they see huge dollars for a few people. It is reckless to present these statistics in this manner.

Our fear is that when the public sees these figures they will think, "Well, that is an area that could see cuts." The newly elected County Council may say, "Are we spending our money efficiently?" or "How have we not ended homelessness with $31 million annually and only 6,000 documented homeless people per year?" Other communities in Ohio and around the country are documenting huge numbers compared to Cleveland. In fact, the District of Columbia on one day in March 2009 measured 5,983 homeless people , and that is a city of around 591,000 total population (Half the population of Cuyahoga County). So, DC reports almost the same number of people for one day as Cuyahoga County reports for the entire year. At the same time, Cleveland is listed as second poorest city in the United States with Washington DC is the 67th poorest city according to the Census. It is impossible to think that with 35% of our total population within the city living below poverty that only 6,000 of those households will fall into homelessness in one year, while Washington DC has only 18.4% of their population living below the poverty level according to the US Census and 6,000 people fall into homelessness in one day.

The damage that this kind of information could do is dramatic. It could lead to budget cuts, service reductions, and increased demand for scarce services. This is harmful to the community of social service providers and to homeless people.

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