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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Fake News: The Homeless Numbers Are Made Up

New report once again misleads lawmakers and the public about the supposed ‘decline’ in numbers of people experiencing homelessness in the United States.

Washington, December 19, 2016 –
As we rapidly approach the end of another year, cities around the country are preparing vigils recognizing those who have lived and died without adequate housing in 2016. November’s release of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development may give those attending some small cause for hope, describing a 3% decrease in the number of men, women, and children experiencing homelessness, counted on a single winter night, over last year’s number.

Unfortunately the report leaves out some important information. For instance, the count in question tallies those staying in emergency and transitional shelters, as well as those who can be located outside. HUD’s recent decreases in funding for such shelters means fewer members of the homeless population are easily accounted for. HUD provides bonuses to communities that decrease their count, creating a disincentive for those conducting counts to locate every unsheltered person in their neighborhoods.

Furthermore, HUD only asks communities to report those who it considers “literally homeless.” This doesn’t include the large numbers of individuals and families who are doubled up or “couch surfing” with friends and relatives. This unrealistic definition of homelessness explains why HUD reported just over 120,000 children experiencing homelessness on a given night, while the Department of Education has reported well over ten times as many children youths registered as homeless in recent years, a number that has more than doubled over the last decade.

The reports of HUD and other governmental and non-governmental organizations purporting to chart a decline in the numbers of those experiencing homelessness are doing a disservice to those men and women who we have lost this year without the basic dignities afforded by secure housing. While so many of those who are tasked with ending homelessness in America won’t admit to the actual scope of the problem, they cannot be relied upon to enact meaningful solutions to it.

The National Coalition for the Homeless calls upon the Department of Housing and Urban Development to face up to the reality that homelessness is not diminishing in America. We call on HUD and its allies to work with us and other organizations to put into place housing policies and investments that will ensure an end to the memorial vigils that have become a disgraceful necessity every December 21st, the longest night of the year.

# # #

Full Disclosure: NEOCH Executive Director is a Board Vice President for NCH.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is a national network of people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others committed to a single mission: To prevent and end homelessness while ensuring the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights protected. 


Street Numbers and Fake HUD Reports

"Honey, I know that it is below zero and we are long ago divorced, but why don't you stay on my couch for this week because I still care about you and don't want you to die."  This may be the reason the numbers released in the latest HUD report do not match reality.  For the last two years, HUD has released numbers for a count that took place at the end of January showing declining numbers of homeless people.  Both years, the count has taken place during the coldest weeks in the Midwest and mid atlantic states.  It is no mystery that the counts decreased over the last few years, because Americans are not cold hearted mean people.  We take people inside if it is bitterly cold.  We put people up on our sofas or basements if it gets too cold, and then those individuals suddenly and magically disappear from the count of being homeless in America. 

Pam Fesler continues her quest to explain the unexplainable to Americans on NPR with another series of stories about homeless people.  Fesler's eventual goal with her stories are to eventually answer the question: how do we have so many people without housing in a country of such wealth? A few cities were like the New York Times story that the hometown is bucking the trend with higher numbers.  Cincinnati reported the same. Many papers wrote about the decline, but very few of the stories talked about how flawed the numbers are or that this is a one day number so what does that mean for a year? If homelessness is only short term state with average length of stay between 19 days and 55 days as in Cleveland, how does one cold day in January mean anything?  What trend could ever be established by counting homeless people one day out of 365? Even the Al Jazeera story did not mention how crazy counting homeless people was in the United States and they are usually pretty good about pointing out the obvious flaws in American culture and how the media fails to see the forest for the trees. 

NPR also looked at the devestation that is known as Skid Row this week.  In an effort to comfort Mayors throughout the United States, NPR did another story which could be headlined:  "It could be way worse look at Los Angeles...or you think you have problems at least you are not Mayor of Los Angeles...or lets try declaring an emergency to see if that will work because nothing else has."  What happens if you declare a state of emergency and no one cares?  Will a future disaster declaration be ignored because we are now calling homelessness a disaster?  Did the victims of Superstorm Sandy get timely help after New York and parts of New Jersey were declared disasters?  Did the Katrina disaster declaration make New Orleans whole?  I am not sure what this trick will do much for homeless people in Los Angeles.  There is no interest at the federal level of spending more money to help homeless people, so what does this do?  Local officials have announced $150 million for affordable housing from the local community.  In a huge city like Los Angeles with a huge population of homeless people and after years of neglect of the social safety net and affordable housing stock, $150 million will not make one bit of difference.  Housing is so expensive to build and maintain especially in the Los Angeles area, and we need a "moon shot" or Eisenhower building the highways type goal from the federal government to begin to show results.  Fighting this city by city with small allocations is a losing battle that will only lead to long lines and a great deal of frustration.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

More News Briefs from this Week

Huffington Post posted a commentary about how homelessness has decreased.  We have covered how ridiculous the HUD count is and statistically invalid these numbers are in the real world.  We also know that the folks at Laura's Home/City Mission would disagree.  If any national expert tells you that homelessness is down, they have no credibility with what is going on in the real world.

Brennan Center for Justice has a series of commentaries from state's that changed their voting procedures. DeNora Getachew, from the Brennan Center, is looking at the changes in voting that took place in the 2014 election.  She has looked at Texas, Iowa, and Ohio so far.  She interviewed me and staff from Souls to the Polls to talk about the harm caused by the loss of Golden Week and evening hours to vote early.   One interesting note, the progressive state of Illinois is working to increase access to voting with new legislation:

  1. It will implement electronic registration, which means more voters will have the opportunity to sign up when they interact with a government agency.
  2. It will create a permanent same-day registration (SDR) system. SDR will increase convenience by allowing citizens to register and vote on the same day, either before or on Election Day.
  3. It will increase early voting options by extending them to include the three days — most notably, the Saturday and Sunday — before Election Day.

San Jose has completed clearing "The Jungle" which some say is the largest number of people in one encampment.  This is one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States and there were over 60 acres of tents and self constructed homes that were torn down.  The San Jose Mercury News editorialized about the cost of not providing housing to these residents.  The LA Times looked at the issue here. Huffington asks the relevant question what happened to those who were "cleared" from this encampment?

The White House posted an entry on their blog about the Cuyahoga County Pay for Success program. We looked at the issue here

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry

Interesting News Stories Around Homelessness

NPR story on Skid Row.  It all started so well describing the disaster area that we call Skid Row.  They talked about this concentration of poverty and the number of years that the area has been neglected. 

"What I describe Skid Row as is the biggest man-made disaster in the United States," says the Rev. Andy Bales, who runs the shelter and has worked on Skid Row for almost 10 years.

Bales says things had been improving on Skid Row, but they've taken a bad turn since the recession. He says hospitals from the region, and even other states, have been dumping homeless patients on Skid Row illegally, and that jails are releasing inmates without enough preparation. Resources have also been reduced for shelters in favor of other approaches.

It then went all downhill when the discussion shifted to permanent supportive housing.  As we have said repeatedly on these pages, PSH projects are fine and needed, but they do not solve homelessness.  If 20% of the population are long term and eligible for the PSH projects, then housing all of those individuals will leave 80% of the population still homeless. No matter how you spin it, the money saved in the community by removing the 20% will not go to address the other 80% of the population.  Finally, we never solve the problem for the 20%, because we cannot build enough housing at one time to end long term homelessness.  So, we help a few people, but even the problem with the long term homeless is not "solved."  It is only reduced in the community. There are plenty of other homeless people who replace those placed in PSH buildings.

This is similar to a hurricane hitting Ft. Lauderdale and destroying 50,000 homes, and the HUD Secretary steps out to say, "Don't worry, we got this. We plan to build 3,000 homes to solve this problem by 2020."  People would laugh him out of the room.  They would say that the population would move or be dead by 2020.  They would demand immediate action to solve the problem of homelessness for the 50,000 who lost their housing.  This is why there is this disconnect at the local level.  HUD officials are prescribing a cure for an illness that has nothing to do with what is going on in the community that we live in. 

Officials Want DC Family Shelter to Close.  We talked about the horrible family shelter in Washington DC.  Human Service workers in DC are trying to close the former DC General Hospital and replace it with a better facility.  The article does not mention any timeline or source of funding to replace all these units.  There is a goal of one-to-one replacement of the beds of DC General, but it is going to cost millions to provide for all these families.

On October 22, Vice media took a look at the inability to speak about homelessness in the United States. Peter Brown Hoffmeister looked at how we talk about homelessness.  He does a really good job talking about all the hardships faced by homeless people.  I spent some time living outside with a few homeless people and was unaware of all the things that were a threat to a person without a place to go home to.  The dangers of getting wet, learning how to sleep with one eye open were big issues.  The Vice media has a really nice in depth article on all the things people facing a homeless person and all the things the general population does not understand.

The National Coalition for the Homeless Board Members look at the need for expanded housing voucher program.  In most cities there are years long wait.  In Cleveland, there were 64,000 people who tried to get a voucher when it was opened and only 10,000 people had their numbers drawn.  We will wait for seven years before the voucher list will re-open.  There are so many who cannot afford housing and need a little help.  They make minimum wage and cannot afford the rents even in a rather inexpensive housing market like Cleveland.

Tokyo has a record low number of homeless people despite being one of the most populous cities in the world.  They are actually solving homelessness, while we are only paper solving homelessness in the States.   We talk about slight reductions in homelessness, but when you look behind the numbers there are so many who are not counted but living in basements or garages.  There are families who never get counted because they are not visible.  There are so many kids who couch surf and don't counted.  We need to look at how Japan is dealing with affordable housing compared to the United States.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Guest Post: City Mission Official Gives Other Side of Housing First

A New Class of Chronically Homeless?

by Rich Trickel, CEO of the City Mission in Cleveland.

On September 16, 2014, Northeast Ohio Media Group published the article “Housing First Opens Newest Apartments in Work to End Homelessness” by reporter Tom Feran. Certainly this is cause for celebration—the new building with its 65 subsidized studio apartments will be a godsend to some chronically homeless individuals. Furthermore, the article goes on to say that as a result of the last 8 years of housing first in Cleveland, chronic homelessness has been reduced by 73%! Since the reality on the ground where I am isn’t even close to that claim, I tried to find out where that stat come from and how it was calculated. How can a city whose shelters are currently overwhelmed with homeless families state that chronic homelessness has decreased by 73%?

The first clue in understanding the dramatic claims made by housing first advocates is to understand the meaning of “chronic homelessness.” HUD has segmented the homeless into categories, assigned definitions, and focused their strategy and therefore, their resources on only one group – chronically homeless. To be chronically homeless you are an unaccompanied homeless person (single, alone, not part of a family, not accompanied by children); with a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, a serious mental illness, or a developmental disability; and have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had 4 episodes of homelessness in the last 3 years. To put this in perspective, there are approximately 600,000 homeless individuals in the US on any given night; only 20% will qualify as chronically homeless. So the primary strategy set by the government to eliminate homelessness, the strategy that is being embraced by almost every major metropolitan area, is only focused on 20% of all homeless people. Furthermore, the largest growing segment of the homeless - women & children, do not fit the definition and are therefore not counted and not able to access the resources dedicated to the chronically homeless.

It’s also helpful to understand how a statistic like a 73% reduction in chronic homelessness was even computed—not by a careful day-by-day count of all homeless, but by a single count on a single night in January. This is called the Annual Point In Time Count. Then, based on that single night comparison over time, the claim – a  73% reduction—is made. Can a single count on one cold January night accurately represent anything?

And there’s another problem. Not only is the majority of energy and attention focused on this small segment of the homeless, but most available resources are as well. In Cleveland, the majority of dollars provided to battle homelessness have been spent on permanent supportive housing – housing only available to the designated chronically homeless. Because of this, a number of facilities serving homeless women and children have been forced to close, resulting in the growing numbers of homeless women and children. And it’s not just happening in Cleveland – Washington DC is bracing for a 16% increase in family homelessness this winter, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance is reporting a 60% increase in homeless families over the last few years and a 108% increase in unaccompanied homeless kids and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention in Indianapolis reports a 19% increase in family homelessness.

It’s time to take a long hard look. Are we unintentionally creating a new class of chronically homeless individuals – women and children as a result of the current housing first policy? When confronted with the reality most cities are facing right now, why do we continue to insist housing first is the only effective strategy to ending homelessness? How long will we ignore the growing numbers of homeless women and children flooding our cities?

Rich Trickel, CEO of the City Mission, can be reached at 216/287-9187.  We welcome comments to this post by clicking on the "Post a Comment" below this journal entry. Note that Cuyahoga County Officials and the Housing First Initiative were invited to submit a response.

Guest posts reflect the opinions of the authors and not necessarily of NEOCH.

Interesting National Stories

It was not even a month ago that social service providers from Cleveland and around the United States were in New Orleans for the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference and now the City undermines its effort to build a trusting relationship with a raid on a large campsite. I guess City officials did not learn anything from the conference.  They did not give sufficient notice (2 days) and they did not have sufficient housing available to the 160 people sleeping outside.  In addition, they came with garbage trucks to throw away all the belongings.  The City officials called it a public health hazard ignoring the health concerns of the individuals with no where else to go.  Many suspect that this has more to do with the upcoming New Orleans Saints football season than it had to do with public safety.   Even the article from the Associated Press gave very little information about housing assistance offered to those sleeping under this bridge.  There are so many reasons why these guys are under a bridge including mental illness, sexually based offenses, debt issues or other reasons that prevent the individuals from signing a lease. 

There were two stories on NPR about the advancements made in San Antonio in how to better serve Mentally Ill individuals.  These three articles talk about the savings to the healthcare and law enforcement community by keeping mentally ill out of jails and emergency rooms.  They claim a $50 million dollar saving over the last five years through their efforts.  Jenny Gold talks about police officers trained to better deal with those with a mental illness.  We saw the negative outcomes in St. Louis this week with police firing on a knife wielding mentally ill man.  San Antonio seems to be taking a different approach.  There was also a story on the data gathered and used to provide better services to the mentally ill in San Antonio.  We do some training in Cleveland, but we are a long way from diverting mentally ill people from jail.  Cleveland police waste a ton of resources on arresting and processing and incarcerating mentally ill individuals.  Look at the long arrest record of Malissa Williams before her killing in November 2012 after that fateful police chase. 

The statistics offered by HUD on homelessness are flawed to the point of being useless. 

The Washington Post looked at levels of homelessness in the United States with this graphic.  Since it is nearly impossible to count homeless people living outside who are constantly moving around. This graphic can be better understand by showing the extent of shelters in the United States. We have advanced to the point that we do a good job counting homeless people living in shelter, and those numbers are solid statistics.  The problem is that if a City does not build or increase shelters or locks the door when they are full then they have no relationship to the number of homeless people.  So, California and New York put a great deal of money into housing and homelessness, while Louisiana and most of the Southern states contribute very little.  There are large numbers of homeless people sleeping outside in Florida because of the weather that do not get counted in this study.  Take this survey and graphic with a grain of salt and realize it is more a picture of the concentration of shelters in the United States.

Harriet McDonald of the Doe Fund wrote a commentary for the Huffington Post striking back against the National Alliance to End Homelessness push for more Permanent Supportive Housing. This is a battle that advocates lost about six years ago, and there are still a few out there who want to turn back the clock.  Cleveland has developed 570 units of housing under the "Housing First" model, and they are beautiful new housing for a fragile population.  Unfortunately, this is the only housing being developed in most communities so it is hard to criticize.  Ms. McDonald makes some very good points that there are losers in this race that are not being served because we have turned 80% of our resources toward long term, disabled homeless people.  We see family populations exploding and single unemployed people who cannot find any help.  We see that young people who stay with family and friends are not eligible for help. 

We have written often questioning the long term funding for these projects, the real savings realized by the community, and the fact that these buildings are being over-sold in the community.   But in the face of federal cuts to other mainstream housing programs and the prioritizing of HUD funds exclusively for PSH/Housing First projects, what choice do we have.  In the end, we tried exclusively emergency shelters that served a limited number of people and that did not work.  We tried transitional programs that screened out more people than they served and quickly evicted residents for falling off the wagon.  That did not work very well.  We did not fund supportive services at Public Housing, which caused huge issues for neighbors.  So, we are left with Permanent Supportive Housing as the latest trend.  It would be much better to have all these types of housing services available to the population, because everyone is different and everyone responds to different intervention techniques.  But we don't have enough money or political will to give multiple approaches a chance to work.  The NAEH types and the Housing First people won.  They had great publicity and pushed one sided research on the community.  They made big boasts that they could shut down shelters if Mayor's jumped on the band wagon with Housing First.  We get some nice buildings in our community that will demand 24 hours of supportive services for the next 30 years, and unless we build millions of units we are still going to need shelters. The next administration may feel that these PSH buildings are fads and will be onto something else, but right now Housing First is the only game in town.

One tough story from the Friday StoryCorps series on NPR about a family living in their car in the Seattle area.  This is an interview between a Mom and her teenage daughter struggling to survive after the collapse of housing market in the United States.  The father had been a part of the corrupt Countrywide group who contributed a great deal to destabilizing the housing market in America.  I wonder how families who were victims of the predatory lending of Countrywide heard this story?  It would have led to a lot of healing in our community if Angelo Mozilo and David Loeb of Countrywide were sentenced to one year of living in an automobile on the streets of any major city in America.  I think that many of these "Masters of the Universe" who's corrupt business practices led to the financial downturn, should have been made to experience the results of their banking procedures.  They should have been sentenced to having to live in abandoned properties or forced to try to sell houses squeezed between two abandoned properties.  They should have had to sleep on the streets or in shelters to talk to some of the victims of their greed. 

The interview was tough to hear about this teenager having to go to school everyday and return to a vehicle at night.  She tried to study and apply for college while consolidating her life into a tiny space.  The sleep deprivation, the inability to have a place for her stuff, and the stress on the family must be overwhelming.  It was a powerful story worth a listen.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Homeless Counts and the Danger of Releasing Numbers

I did not do a good job of describing the NEOCH position on the release of numbers by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.   We have talked about this every year that these numbers come out, and a report is issued for Congress.   This is to prove to legislators that the millions spent on homeless services are worthwhile and not sending good money after bad.   In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were so many exaggerated numbers released by advocates, researchers, local government, and social service providers that Congress demanded some real numbers.  Now, we get this terribly flawed report with no basis in reality.  In fact, the first 20 pages of the report to Congress is a disclaimer of how unscientific these numbers are, and how each city attempts the count in a different manner.  There is no standard for the count, and there is no way for the information to be explained to the media/public in a simple manner. 

We feel that the annual count is a horrible waste of time and money, and the release of the data is harmful to our community.  Locally, our volunteers do a meticulous job of documenting every person who they come across.  This dramatically undercounts the population.  In other cities, they rely on huge estimates, because there is not enough time to actually count everyone.  HUD offers little guidance and does not throw out bogus numbers.   All the good numbers are put together in the same report as the fictitious numbers and delivered to Congress.  Some cities that use wildly excessive will benefit from additional funding and media attention.  Those cities who use understated numbers will be viewed as not needing the funding, and resources will go to other issues such hunger and literacy. 

The US Conference of Mayors released numbers at the end of each year.  These are equally fictitious numbers but at least they have no basis in how funding is decided.  They are also rely on the expertise of some staff in the Mayors office in a number of cities.  There is no pseudo-science involved in the US Conference of Mayor's report.  These experts can rely on calls for help or just a gut feeling to put out numbers. They all submit some facts to back up their reason for saying that hunger or homelessness has increased or decreased.  There are a lot of advocates who hate the US Conference of Mayors report, but I am not troubled by the report.  It does not purport to be a definitive number or based on some walking around looking at bags of clothing outside.  It is the opinion of Mayors throughout the United States about the amount of suffering among their citizens.  Some Mayors will use this to show how the federal government has failed while others will show how great a job they are doing as a Mayor.  This is a highly political document so it need to be taken with a grain of salt.

We have said many times that if you want real numbers government has to pay for them. They have to contract with universities who are trained to do research to come up with real numbers.  You could study nine or ten cities and then some rural and suburban communities, and then make some multiplier to come up with real numbers for the country.  How many of those living below poverty according to the US Census will become homeless in a 12 month period?  Is it 5%, 7% or 12% experience some form of homelessness?  Does this vary by rural vs. urban communities?  Do communities like Detroit with larger impoverished populations become homeless in larger numbers because the safety net is so overwhelmed?   These are all questions that need answered with real research by trained professionals, and it will cost money.  Put aside the annual count and any observations made from this flawed data.  It means nothing and there is no way to compare these numbers from a bunch of volunteers. 

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Flawed Number Released on Homeless Count

The biggest waste of money by the Department of Housing and Urban Development has to be the annual count of homeless people.  We always equate this with counting a gumball machine full of Skittles as you pour them out onto the floor.  The first question for both is "why?"  Why would you want to count the colorful Skittles while they are falling on to the floor and are still in motion?  And why would you count homeless people on one day as they traveled around the city?   The second question is how valid is a count in which untrained volunteers drive around trying to play this game of "is that guy a homeless guy sleeping or a pile of clothing?"  NEOCH never wastes its time with this silly undertaking in late January or February.  We do a count of the people sleeping in a small geographic area of the same streets in Cleveland on the same day every year to show the trend of number of people sleeping outside, but we certainly do not make the leap that this is a total count of the population.

The annual count figures were released by HUD this last week, and they show a decline in the United States on the number of homeless people.  The media reports never includes all the qualifications about the flawed data or how meticulous some communities are in the count (Cleveland) and how liberal they are in estimates in other communities (Los Angeles).  Cleveland/Cuyahoga County reported 2,100 people with zero families without shelter. We have to question that there were no families sleeping in cars over on the near West Side trying to avoid police detection. We also reported one of the lower rates of long term homeless in the country at 12.2%.  These are similar numbers as we had over the last three years, and is only a couple dozen above the total number of shelter beds in our community.  Assuming all beds are full and in fact some beds are used multiple times a night for the two largest shelters, the volunteer counters found only a few people outside in Cuyahoga County on that night. This does not match the spreadsheet we keep of homeless people who sleep outside in coordinating outreach workers.

It is hard to count people outside or in cars or in abandoned buildings.   In addition, these are not trained US Census workers doing the count or academics.  These are just volunteers who have an interest in maximizing the count to justify their jobs.   The media covers the story, but does not include any of the skeptics who can say that most of this information is junk. The Washington Post story on the decline in Veteran's homelessness down by 24%, but no mention about how bad the collection of the homeless data is by agencies that serve veterans in the United States.   I have read the report from the Department of Veterans Affairs contained in the HUD report, and can say that it is highly deceptive.  At least in the HUD report they are surveying the same facilities every year.  In the VA count, one third to one half of the facilities surveyed from 2010 are then just estimates in 2011.  This is useless information and there is no way to make a statement that the number of homeless veterans are down by 24% with so many variables.   This is truly picking a number out of the air and reporting it as fact.  

The only way that this data could ever be accurate is to:

  1. use data that is reliable like shelter bed usage or calls to the local first call for help number or kids who are declared homeless by the local school district.
  2. not use outdoor counts which are unreliable.
  3. find a new way to count homeless people in rural communities who never have enough beds to serve the population.
  4. have the data supervised by academics who can make accurate estimations using Census data.
  5. spend time and resources on representative cities, suburbs and rural communities and then make estimations on similar sized cities.
  6. develop some multiplier for total population designed by academics or limit the report to the shelter population because a physical count will never be accurate for a population that lives in the shadows.
  7. verify these numbers with on the ground secondary sources that do not have a vested interest in presenting a decline (government) or an increase in the numbers (advocates for expanded funding).

I never have understood why the media do not view these numbers with greater skepticism.  There is never a balance in these stories or a look behind the curtain.   No one ever reports that if HUD is reporting to Congress such flawed information, how do we expect them to oversee an end to homelessness?   How can they supervise affordable housing if they rely on such bad information from the field?  It is lazy for the media to report this information, and can only be seen as a reprint of a press release from the agency.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry


Nice Article on the Flaws of Point in Time Counts

The Institute on Children, Poverty and Homelessness have a nice article on their blog regarding the bad information distributed by HUD with their annual point in time counts.  We agree with this national agency, and do not participate in the local point in time count done by the County.  Our biggest issue is that both the media, national groups, and the federal government manipulates and distorts this data to dramatically underestimate the population.  They publish a report that has 20 pages of qualifiers about how bad the data is and how it cannot be translated to a yearly count, but in the end all that is lost when the information is tweeted to the public.  The ICPH correctly identifies many of the flaws with this data, the biggest problem is the dramatic undercount in families and the problems in not being able to recognize trends with a one day count.  We encourage people to bookmark their blog and check in with this group regularly.


Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Dramatic Decline in Those Sleeping Outside Downtown

Where have all the homeless gone?   Every year since 1999, we have walked the downtown from the river to East 20th and the Lake to Carnegie Ave. to see how many people are sleeping downtown.  In the 1990s, Mayor Michael White was ordering the Police to go downtown on Thanksgiving weekend to harass homeless people off of the streets in order to reassure shoppers that it was safe to come downtown.  There were over 60 people sleeping in the downtown in the winter of 1998.  This was a foolish policy that NEOCH confronted with three lawsuits, and won each time.  It also contributed to the development of 2100 Lakeside Shelter, and the policy of not turning people away who show up requesting shelter.  Those sleeping outside became a flashpoint between the business interests downtown and those struggling with poverty during the late 1980s and most of the 1990s.

   We settled our last lawsuit in February of 2000 and since that time we have had volunteers walk the downtown talking to homeless people and counting the number who sleep outside.  We make sure that the agreement we struck with the City of Cleveland is holding, and there is no violation by the Cleveland Police or any City officials.  For the past dozen years, the agreement has held with minor infractions typically outside of the downtown area.  We walk on the Friday after Thanksgiving early in the morning every year.  We believe that this is the lowest number for people sleeping outside for the hole year.  It is a baseline for how many people are going to be downtown this winter.  Most people go back with family or friends during the holiday, so it may be two to four times as many people sleeping downtown during this upcoming winter.  We estimate that the number is going to be down from previous years. 

This shows that the current policies of Cuyahoga County are working.  This shows that despite the dire warnings of some that allowing everyone who wants shelter without a time limit does not in fact lead to overwhelming numbers of people outside.  This shows that the coordination of outreach services and building relationships with all those resistant to shelter works.  This shows that the attention paid by Downtown Cleveland Alliance to keeping the area safe and clean is also working.   Here are the numbers. We did not count in 2011 because of the Occupy movement being downtown.  We know that there were homeless people sleeping at the site, but we were not sure how to factor that into the total.  Were they all "homeless" or were they homeless people from other areas?  We did not want the numbers thrown off, so we just did not count anyone in November 2011.

(One late note:  The other thing different this year when compared to the last 12 years was that Metanoia is open.  This overnight drop in center is open at St. Malachi on the weekend from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and this year it is open on the holidays over the winter.  So, this is the first time that a facility is open targeting people who sleep outside to provide assistance, and they were full this last weekend. )

Years Numbers
1998 60
1999 42
2000 4
2001 6
2002 9
2003 11
2004 19
2005 27
2006 40
2007 17
2008 19
2009 18
2010 14
2011 **
2012 3

**Did not count because of Occupy Movement