Is There Any Way To Reliably Count The Homeless?

“A happy home is the single spot of rest which a man has upon this earth for the cultivation of his noblest sensibilities.” —Frederick William Robertson, 1868

In A Nutshell

To get federal funding or to determine if local programs to help the homeless are working, you need to know how many homeless people are in your area. But that’s not an easy number to compute. In the US, the Department of Housing and Urban Development sends “enumerators” into the streets to actually count the homeless in sample areas as a snapshot in time. London does something similar. Most other governments don’t bother.

The Whole Bushel

To receive federal funding for homeless services like shelters, the US government demands that communities count their homeless at least once every two years. But that’s a difficult, if not impossible, task to complete accurately. You can’t call or write them. Service providers like shelters can count visitors, but not everyone visits. Sometimes, the same people go to more than one organization in the same day. So the use of service providers to count the homeless would probably result in undercounting or overcounting. There are also homeless people who deliberately hide from the government for different reasons.

In the US, there was a surge of homelessness in the 1980s due to cuts in housing programs for the poor, a national trend of having mentally ill people live outside of institutions, and a tough economy. It forced the government to confront the problem.

In 1984, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began publishing snapshots of homelessness at one point in time, which were naturally dubbed “point-in-time studies.” At first, they only used data from homeless shelters. But that didn’t give them a good count.

So now, HUD sends people called “enumerators” into the streets to actually count the homeless at night as a snapshot in time. Many of the enumerators are volunteers, often from nonprofit organizations. Some communities try to count as many homeless people as they can find. A lot of the larger communities, or ones that are understaffed, simply take a sample and try to estimate a total homeless population for their area from that. Other communities still rely on surveys from the organizations that provide services for the homeless.

HUD requires that these counts occur at the end of January, mostly because the cold weather causes more people to go to shelters which makes them easier to count. This also causes less duplication. If different communities counted their homeless during different times of the year, people who moved might be counted more than once. Also, homeless people who live in the north need the most help around this time of year.

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Working in small teams, the enumerators cover their assigned areas on foot or by car. They record a few details about each person, such as gender, approximate age, and type of shelter, if any. In San Francisco, enumerators are advised not to talk to the homeless. If they’re not sure if someone qualifies as homeless, they take their best guess. These rules exist to ensure their safety and to give them more time to complete their task.

In Camden, New Jersey, the volunteers interview homeless people in shelters and drive around in vans looking for the rest. Although the enumerators count a number of people living in “tent cities,” they know their methods miss a lot of people. “There’s people that live in abandoned houses, there’s people that live under bridges, I’ve met people that sleep in their cars at night . . . you’ll never get an accurate count,” says Aaron Howe of one of the tent cities. “The organizations that come out here [to count], they don’t know where everyone is.”

However, according to HUD, an imperfect count is better than no count. It can help them provide resources where they appear to be needed most.

Although this isn’t just a US problem, it’s difficult to compare rates of homelessness across nations because each nation may be defining homelessness differently. London does one of the best jobs of finding their homeless residents. Their charity workers go out every day to track them down. However, outside of London, the British government doesn’t consistently count people sleeping on the streets.

In 2011, the European Union tried to standardize their way of counting the homeless, but only Poland complied. Most governments just don’t bother to count the homeless.

Show Me The Proof

Priceonomics: How U.S. Cities Count Their Homeless
The Economist: How do you count the homeless?
CNN Money: Counting the homeless in America’s poorest city