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Deborah De Santis Headshot

Census Time: Who is Homeless?

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There are different opinions on what exactly constitutes homelessness. Is it someone forced to crash on a family member's couch because she is unemployed and cannot afford rent? Is it the family squatting in a newly foreclosed upon home? Or the more commonly held image of a person living under a bridge or in a cardboard box?

The changing dynamic of homelessness opens this question to some debate and presents a challenge for the U.S. Census Bureau, which this week dispatched thousands to count not just the homeless but also what the government is calling "people temporarily experiencing homelessness." Census takers are visiting homeless shelters and soup kitchens across the country to determine those without permanent addresses. And they are searching for people living under overpasses and bridges, in parks and encampments. For the first time, they will also count people living in vehicles.

But the Census isn't the only way we gauge homelessness. At the beginning of the year, thousands of volunteers from CSH and other organizations fanned out across the country to conduct what is known as the homeless Point-In-Time Counts. What are Point-In-Time Counts? Very simply, they are an annual attempt at numbering the homeless. Unlike the Census, data is compiled yearly, not every decade. Scrutinizing what is learned from face-to-face interviews, advocates try to determine the most accurate number of homeless people.

Although mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a basis for distributing funds to communities, there is a much better reason for the counts -- they are the only comprehensive annual measurements that tell us whether homelessness is decreasing or increasing and which programs aimed at helping the homeless are working.

The counts are not perfect, but they are the most effective method to date. Over the years, as the strategies to ensure accuracy have become more sophisticated, the counts have revealed a great deal of valuable and reliable information. The surveys generally categorize the overall population of vulnerable people into subgroups labeled chronically homeless, homeless families with kids and unsheltered homeless.

Because of the counts, we are able to say that chronic homelessness was on the decline a few years ago, then held steady, and that currently all categories of homelessness seem to be on the rise again. Without the Point-In-Time Counts, we would not know about these trends with such a high degree of clarity and certainty. More importantly, policymakers and providers of homeless services would not be able to plan resources to meet changing demographics.

The Point-In-Time Counts have also added to the body of evidence proving that supportive housing is one of the most effective tools for combating homelessness. Experts across the spectrum have concluded that supportive housing contributed greatly to the decline in chronic homelessness registered a couple of years ago. Supportive housing provides those who are at risk with a stable, permanent place to live. As a person or family begins to regain a sense of stability and safety, support services are made available to address case management, counseling, medical care, mental health, job training, education and many other needs.

In spite of inroads made in the last decade, the recent counts appear to be telling us that the "Great Recession," as the media has now dubbed it, is definitely taking an unwelcomed toll. Although HUD will not release conclusive results from the recent Counts until this summer, we are already seeing plenty of antidotal information and partial numbers portending bad news. HUD's report last year showed the nation's total homeless numbers were relatively steady from 2007 to 2008, but noted a 9 percent increase in homeless persons with families. This was our first warning sign of the recession's impact.

Families in shelters started rising in early 2008 and it appears the increase developed a more rapid pace in late 2009. The single adult population was falling, but started to rise again last year as well. Given what we are seeing, it is easy to conclude that there are strong links between joblessness, foreclosures and homelessness in every part of the United States. In the ups and downs of the economic cycles, we have learned a great deal in our fight against homelessness.

First, it is essential that we have the best handle possible on the breadth and depth of the problem in order to understand what we are up against. Second, knowledge is power. The more we know for sure about the homeless, the better the resources are allocated. Lastly, by carefully analyzing the numbers, we can ascertain with greater accuracy which programs are actually working to prevent and end homelessness.

A very important ingredient for success is stability. On its face, tackling the host of problems associated with homelessness -- old and new -- appears daunting. But a proven tool known as supportive housing is working, actually getting people off the streets and keeping them housed. As obvious as it sounds, nothing ends homelessness for individuals and families better than a stable home.