Homelessness appears to be rising quickly with the bad economy, yet most cities will not be doing their biannual surveys of who is homeless and why.
Every other January, cities and counties across the nation conduct the “One Night Street Count”, a census of people experiencing homelessness across the country. The biannual street count is scheduled for January 27th, but that count won’t happen in many cities, including some of those that have been the hardest hit by the homelessness crisis.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities have determined that it just is not safe to conduct the street count this month. With coronavirus rates rising and vaccine roll-out slower than expected, the risk to volunteers, staff, and individuals experiencing homelessness is too great.
Cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and San Francisco have canceled the count altogether. Other cities have requested to delay the count until later in the year.
Some cities are still conducting the survey, but modifying it to make it shorter. In these places where the count will still take place, officials anticipate asking fewer questions and having fewer teams on the street doing the surveys. Officials acknowledge that these changes will result in a dramatic under-counting of the homeless population and a lack of research on major issues affecting people who are homeless.
This means there will be no updated count of homelessness across the county, and no measurable way to determine the impact that our pandemic ravaged economy has had on homelessness.
What is the One Night Street Count?
The biannual street count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a requirement to receive federal funding for homeless services like shelters.
In what is generally a cold night in most parts of the country, an army of volunteers and homeless services workers head out to find and count people who are homeless. They target places where people are known to be camping or living in their cars, including downtown areas, vacant buildings, under bridges and overpasses, industrial areas, wooded areas, and Walmart parking lots.
The One Night Street Count is also intended to categorize who exactly is homeless, what caused them to lose their homes, how long they have been on the streets, and what services they need to recover from the trauma of homelessness and move into stable housing.
All the information that is gathered on this one night is compiled and reported to city and county leaders, state homelessness offices, and the federal government.
There are many critics of the One Night Street Count. For one thing, the count happens at the coldest time of the year, when a higher percentage of people experiencing homelessness might be temporarily staying with family or friends or cobbling together money to stay in a hotel.
The count is also called “the point-in-time count” because it only measures the homeless at one point in time. It fails to measure changes in homelessness throughout the seasons, or after particular events such as the end of the school year or the beginning of harvest season.
The count is also frequently criticized for its flawed methodology. Since each jurisdiction chooses how it will administer its counts, some cities have unrealistically low counts while jurisdictions that work hard to be more inclusive appear to have higher numbers.
The count also is skewed to over-count in areas where the homeless are allowed to camp or sleep outside. Many jurisdictions have outlawed sleeping outside, forcing people who are unhoused to hide or move around frequently. Those people generally don’t get counted in the street count.
There is also widespread knowledge that the survey under-counts certain populations. The street count tends to overemphasize single white men, who tend to be more openly homeless. People of color, homeless women, unaccompanied minors and LGBTQ youth, and people with children tend to be more invisible. The risk of being homeless is higher for these groups, and they do more to stay under the radar and not draw attention to themselves.
Homeless providers generally report much higher numbers of homeless people than the street count captures. Local school districts also conduct an annual survey of homeless students, and this report consistently shows a much higher number of homeless youth and families with children who are unhoused.
Why is the One Night Street Count important?
There are many reasons while the count is important.
First, the count is required to receive federal homelessness funds. The federal government offers jurisdictions with higher levels of homelessness access to important funds that pay for everything from shelter beds to treatment programs to street outreach.
The count also provides important information on who is homeless and what the trends are. For example, in most areas of the country, the 2019 street count showed a huge increase in older adult homelessness. Homeless people over 60 and homeless elderly rose sharply.
The counts also answer important questions and dispel myths. For example, in most areas, the average person thinks that the homeless are all people from out of town, presumably bussed in from another place to live on their streets. In reality, street counts consistently show that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness were living in the same area before they became homeless.
The count also ensures that people experiencing homelessness are not invisible. It can mean a lot to a person who spends the whole year with people looking through them, ignoring them, to know that they count.
What is the impact of not conducting the counts?
Although street homeless groups won’t be counted this year, homeless services staff will still complete a count of the sheltered homeless, people staying in shelters, sanctioned camps, or transitional housing programs.
This will leave out a huge portion of the homeless population though. The unsheltered homeless population, which includes people who live in tents, cars, sidewalks, or natural areas, are the most vulnerable of all the homeless.
People living on the street have a much higher risk of illness and death. They are also highly likely to be victims of violent crime. Unsheltered homeless people made up more than a third of the total 567,715 homeless individuals counted in January of 2019.
“Foregoing the count means that we’re going to miss a pretty crucial data point,” said Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania, a noted researcher on homelessness who also helps the federal government analyze street count data. “Particularly in light of COVID, there’s been widespread reports that there’s an increase in unsheltered homelessness around the country.”
The impact of skipping the count will also fail to demonstrate the impacts of reduced shelter beds due to social distancing requirements.
The silver lining of skipping or modifying the counts is that it may encourage the federal government to recognize more accurate ways to understand the depth and breadth of homelessness in the United States.
None of this will be any comfort to the hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who are homeless and waiting for help.
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