More than half a million people in the United States were homeless on a single night in January 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported. That means the number of people living in the world’s richest nation who don’t have a secure place to sleep is almost equal to the population of Wyoming. It’s also very likely a severe undercount.
An analysis released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty suggests that the true number of people experiencing homelessness could be between two and 10 times that high. The center recommends that the federal government adopt different counting strategies to improve the quality of the data.
On the last Friday in January, thousands of volunteers fan out to conduct a census of people experiencing homelessness. They count people in shelters and transitional housing as well as people visible on the street. Tents and vehicles used for residency are included. Exactly how the count is organized and executed differs by community.
RELATED ARTICLE: All Home’s point-in-time count sees an increase in those who are left out in the cold
Leaning on academic research and strategies from other departments within the federal government, “Don’t Count On It,” released Dec. 6 along with the HUD report, seeks to demonstrate that the methods behind the counts are almost certain to produce numbers that are too low.
People who take shelter in buildings will not be counted. Counts rely on volunteers who receive minimal training. In one study conducted in New York, volunteer counters missed 29 percent of people planted by researchers as part of the experiment.
Such counts also exclude certain kinds of homelessness. People who are doubled up or unstably housed do not appear in these figures, nor do people in hospitals or who are incarcerated. People who participate in the rapid rehousing program, which offers a short-term rental subsidy, are considered housed for the purpose of the count.
These choices can impact the amount of funding an area receives, according to the report.
“Don’t Count On It” recommends that HUD standardize count methodologies, include experts to estimate the number of people missed by the count and ensure that data is disaggregated by race and ethnicity.
Mark Putnam, director of All Home King County, the coordinating body overseeing the regional response to homelessness, said that while the community should pay attention to the fact that homelessness is increasing, people “shouldn’t put too much credence in the actual numbers.”
“Without the count, most people would have observed that homelessness seems to be on the rise in the West Coast and not as much in other communities,” Putnam said. “The point-in-time count gives us something to point to to say yes, this data is confirming that.”
Putnam also noted that the King County count was changed in 2017 to try to reach a more accurate number. It now includes every census tract in the county and a new metric to determine the number of people living in vehicles or tents.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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