Yearly one-night homeless count draws criticism, defenders
Over the past few weeks, thousands of clipboard-toting volunteers have fanned out across some of the nation’s largest cities, tasked with a deceptively complex job: counting the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets.
And under federal rules, they’ve had to do it under difficult conditions that some social service groups say are bound to produce an inaccurate tally. The official counts are done only once a year, in the dead of winter, when homeless people are more likely to be hunkered down in places that are hard to see.
The count is mandated by the federal government in order for the cities to receive certain kinds of funding. It has taken place all over the country in the last few weeks in cities such as Philadelphia; Houston; and Boise, Idaho. But it has faced significant criticism.
Some social service groups argue that it should be done more often, because the number of homeless spotted on the street could change on how cold it is that night. A number also argue that the volunteers don’t often venture into dark parks or under non-visible locations — such as bridges, highway embankments or subway tunnels — and that the homeless are inherently transient and easy to miss during even a comprehensive survey.
For example, New York’s annual count usually puts the number of street homeless in the low 3,000s but advocacy groups have suggested the actual total could be nearly double that. This year’s count won’t be known for months.
“It’s a flawed measure and using it to make a comparison from one year to the next is deeply problematic since so many variables change,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York. “Doing it one day a year doesn’t provide accuracy. And if you don’t have an accurate read of the problem, you can’t accurately identify solutions.”
In New York, though the canvass-goers try to reach as many streets as possible, the city is too vast to cover fully in one night. So, a mix of city blocks with a high density of people and those of low density are chosen for the survey based on existing data and the results are inserted into a formula to extrapolate a final number.
Even some of the groups participating in the survey acknowledge that the system is far from ideal.
But officials suggest that the one-night approach, which provides a snap-shot of each community’s homeless situation, is the best that can be done considering current fiscal and manpower restraints.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, whose agency doles out funding contingent on cities doing the survey, joined Mayor Bill de Blasio for New York’s count that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning. De Blasio, whose administration is battling a rise in homelessness, walked several blocks and assured the homeless he encountered that the city was trying to help.
“It’s very, very sad to see, especially in the middle of a city with so much wealth,” de Blasio said. “This is not the way it should be.”
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