How to Misuse Statistics

"Homelessness has dropped--but do you believe the numbers?" was the headline in the Plain Dealer.  It was weird that they are asking the public to weigh in or did they not get enough experts to weigh in so they have no idea?  Are the readers qualified to make this assessment?  Are the headline writers asking if the following article is fake news?  Then they don't even answer the question in the article by only presenting one side of the story and only interviewing Bill Faith of COHHIO.  Is this some kind of new journalism where the newspaper just asks questions and expects us to come with our own answers?

I can answer the question right now, no, homelessness has not decreased but the number of shelter beds in Cleveland has dramatically decreased.  Just during the Obama administration, Cleveland lost 328 shelter beds locally.  It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to count people when they are not in shelter.  Twelve years ago, we were spending 80% of the dollars locally on shelters and now we spend 80% of our homeless dollars on Permanent Supportive Housing.  Why are we using homeless dollars to pay for people living in housing permanently?  Why aren't they taking money from mental health, addiction services or some other housing program to pay for the 620 people residing in these units in Cleveland?  HUD can say that there is a 20% decline but it has no validity if there are not beds for people to sleep in then how do we measure?

The other major issue is that these stats are based on a one day count.  This is useless because the number of homeless people on January 25 in a cold city is different compared to the number of homeless in a warm weather city.  The number of people in shelter in Cleveland in January is much different compared to September.  There is no way to make a generalization from one day and make that into a trend.  It is like saying that because January 25, 2016 was 20 degrees colder when compared to January 25, 2015 that means that 2016 was substantially colder than 2015.  One day out of 365 means nothing.  Imagine if the Census counted only on one day with a bunch of volunteers who are not trained while removing 20% of the housing in a particular city every year and then tried to count all those people sleeping rough. No one would put any faith in the Census or use the data.  

Just read the report from HUD on the Complete Count if you have any questions (but I am not giving a link because it is useless information).  The first 20 pages are all about how bad the data is and every city does it differently and that it should not be used for broad trends.  The media, including the Plain Dealer, do not read the reports and then uses the data improperly.  The National Coalition for the Homeless issued a nice press release about the issue. The experts are trying to say to the new administration, "Hey, you did not waste all those billions on Permanent Supportive Housing over the last 12 years.  Keep funding us, because look we have reduced homelessness by 20% or some other bogus figure."   It is bogus science that should be thrown away, and propaganda from lobbyists who want to show that homeless money is not just thrown down a well of waste. 

There is no doubt that the PSH units have kept many thousands alive in the United States.  The problem is that they are overselling the program.  Most other trends in the community are bad, and PSH is the one program that is attempting to reverse the trends.  All the losses in subsidized housing (Public housing, Section 8, and HUD funded private landlords) far overwhelm the small gains in PSH.  The shelters are full and every bed has a waiting list.  Homeless deaths are up; addictions are up; family homelessness is up.  Better access to healthcare is the other bright spot in our landscape.  Homelessness is up in Cleveland and Ohio, but shelter beds are down.  Don't believe the hype from HUD or the so-called experts.  These so called experts will rue the day, when the State and Federal government cuts funding for homelessness and saying, "You guys said homelessness is down and we have other priorities.  If homelessness is down we can afford to cut the budget by 20%."   Rough times ahead.

Brian Davis

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