THE BLOG
05/31/2011 04:11 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

Is Your Homeless Tally Half Full or Half Empty?

He was the Iraqi Information Minister eight years ago when American troops triumphantly entered the capital city of Baghdad. Like a true public relations spokesperson, "Baghdad Bob" spoke on the television airwaves falsely explaining to his countrymen and the world that everything was fine. History, however, recorded how wrong his assessment was.

But boy did he think his country's glass was half full, if not overflowing.

Recently, public relations spokespersons have been called on to put their spin on an every two-year event in this country -- the counting of homeless persons.

The federal government mandates local jurisdictions who receive federal homeless dollars to count the number of homeless persons every two years. Smaller cities interview each person, and larger jurisdictions combine real counting with estimates.

In a period where this country endured a severe job-losing economy that devastated the ability of families and individuals to make ends meet, most experts predicted homelessness would increase. In the past couple of years, shelters across the nation proclaimed an increase of need.

So this past January, in the quiet of the night, volunteers spanned across cities to count homeless persons. The results are being announced now.

The Golden Gated city of San Francisco announced a 0.1 percent decrease in homelessness from 2009 to 2011. Clark County, home of Las Vegas, declared a 15.5 percent decrease in homelessness in the last two years. New York City had a similar 15 percent decrease in street homelessness in the past one year, while the state of Utah announced an 8 percent decrease in a span of one year.

Some jurisdictions, however, proclaimed opposite results. Hillsborough County, home of Tampa, admitted to a 100 hundred percent increase, while the California wine county of Sonoma declared a 40 percent increase.

So if you're "Baghdad Bob" presenting an admittedly unscientific approach to counting hard to find people on the streets, how do you message the outcome?

The message for a decrease in numbers, even in this nation's worst recession in decades, is simple: "It worked." Some cities said their new approach to housing people took more people off the streets, or their brand spanking new service center helped more people get into housing. Some spokespersons said their approach to counting got better.

The message for an increase in homelessness was also simple: "It's the economy, stupid." Of course, the numbers went up during a near economic depression. People lost their jobs, were unable to pay their rent, and ended up on the streets. When almost one out of ten Americans were not working, clearly homelessness would increase.

Depending on what the number was, the message was either a half filled glass or a half empty one.

But just like the Iraqi people hearing a rosy assessment of a war of devastation, homeless Americans didn't really care what the announced number was, or for that matter, the jaded perspective when the count results were broadcast. Because the only count that matters to a person living on the streets, is when he or she can count on walking across the threshold of a permanent home.

Take Ron, for example. He had lived on the streets in Southern California for 38 years. I am sure he was counted numerous times in the past eight years during the official homeless counts. But this past January, his head was not counted. Not because he was hidden under some bush along the river, but because he was sleeping in his own bed, in his own apartment.

For Ron, homeless counts are no longer a part of his life. Unless he wants to volunteer at one.