Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Counting Homeless People

What if the Census Counted People Like HUD?

I hate the Homeless Management Information System, because it is such bad data that it harms our community. Garbage in: garbage out is my biggest issue with this system. It is the law of the land that every shelter receiving public funds must submit data to the Department of Housing and Urban Development or they are at risk of losing federal and state dollars. The problem is that it misses so many people that using this data as any reflection of the number of homeless people diminishes the extent of the problem.

I was thinking, what if the Census were conducted in much the same way as the count of homeless people? What if there was no dedicated money going to the count every ten years, and it was all volunteer? What if there was very little training available to the volunteers who were expected to complete the Census count in every city? What if those volunteers made a pledge of confidentiality, but there was no oversight or law protecting the privacy rights of those who answered the Census questionnaire? What would the count look like if the government enlisted grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, and cable tv repair men to do their jobs but also oversee the Census count at the same time? That is the system we have with HUD. Case workers who all have full time jobs are expected to volunteer to submit data to the federal government to come up with a count of the number of homeless people. The shelters do not receive any additional funds or regular training about counting or confidentiality. While the bubbly and friendly young person who scans my milk and cereal at Dave's Supermarket may be good at her job, I don't want her to be in charge of the US Census. I also don't think the guys going out at night to save people from the cold should be the individuals in charge of the count of homeless people.

An all volunteer US Census would also allow for regional disparities in the count. San Diego city officials could decide that they are going to make sure that their grocery store clerks and cable tv staff were trained and spent a couple of weeks only on the US census. They may decide that the 10 year payoff in federal funds is worth spending a great deal of local money getting the count right. While Detroit would just not have the money to pay volunteers to count, and their numbers would suffer. So, San Diego would have a large growing population and Detroit would shrink in the US Census. This is what happens with the homeless count. Some communities put real money into the effort, and others rely entirely on volunteers. This creates huge disparities in the final numbers.

I have no problem with cable tv repair people, in fact, some of my best friends work for the local cable tv company, but I don't want them to ask me personal questions and then turn that information over to the government. I want someone who has to pledge that they will go to jail if they release any of my personal information while doing their job of counting the population. I want someone who is paid by the federal government to spend their full time counting people, and not volunteers working on other issues. The data generated from HMIS is unreliable and is not a good measure of the number of homeless people in a city.

NEOCH is working on our 2010 State of Homelessness report. We use the HMIS information in the report, but only to document the demographics of people within the shelters. It is only good information to say how many African Americans or veterans are using the shelters. It is good information for where people go after they leave a shelter, but we would never use this information as a measurement of the total number of homeless people in a community.

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