01/27/2011 02:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Public Official Who Cares

Every December the Conference of Mayors releases a report on hunger and homelessness. Last month they issued their 29th of these annual reports. Back in 1982, 55 cities participated. In 2010 only 27 cities weighed in on the condition of the poor in their communities.

Any mathematician will tell you, the smaller the sample the less reliable the data.

Cities belonging to the U.S. Conference of Mayors must have at least 30,000 people and there are about a eleven hundred of them. But the National League of Cities website states that there are 19,429 municipal governments in our country. That means that around 6 percent of our nations municipalities qualify for this study on homelessness and hunger and only -- here, do the math with me, 27 divided by 19,429 -- 1/10 of one percent of existing cities, towns and villages contribute to the results.

Now, I write about homelessness often. And I'm grateful for the Conference of Mayor's report because there's some pretty bleak news in there and that story needs to be told. Still those of us who serve the poor everyday are concerned not just by the tragic realities showcased in the report but by their scope. And if the study had a bigger sample from a larger cross section of communities; we believe the reality -- sadly -- would be even more vile.

So I was happy when my co-traveler Diane Nilan arranged a meeting with the chairperson of the report -- Asheville, N.C. Mayor, Terry Bellamy.

Ironically, we left Calhoun, Georgia on SR 225, aka "The Trail of Tears" Highway. Shuttling from homeless event to homeless event on a highway named after a million uprooted and relocated indigenous people should stand as a reminder of how long homelessness has been a reality in the United States.

We spoke at a screening of Diane's documentary, "My Own Four Walls" which she produced while traveling the country speaking with homeless children.

After that we high-tailed it to Asheville.

Diane forgot to tell me about the letter writing campaign she had launched against Mayor Bellamy accusing Bellamy of compiling an incomplete and inaccurate document. I learned of the letter writing campaign at the same time we came face to face with the dignified Mayor Bellamy.

The foul weather on the road and the delightfully large crowd at the film screening slowed us down a bit and we were late to City Hall. Still, the extremely busy mayor made time for us.

"How do I get you to call off the dogs?" were the Mayor's first words after a polite introduction. Mayor Bellamy continued looking at Diane, "You're the one filling my e-mail box every day, right?"

Diane and I had spoken ahead of time about what we felt was missing from the report; and considering the air in the room was thickening, I thought this would be a good time to talk. "We were hoping that the sample of cities might be larger and that the sample could cover a broader spectrum of municipal governments," I interjected.

Mayor Bellamy responded, "Let me back up and tell you how this report is compiled. We send a survey to all of the Conference of Mayor's cities and they decide whether or not to respond. Budgets are tight and we cannot make a city government dedicate staff to answer our survey."

We offered that area agencies might assist the various cities in filing their responses and Mayor Bellamy acknowledged that she -- in fact -- enlists the help of her local food bank to answer many of the questions.

The 2010 reporting participants were all very big cities. Asheville with more than 70,000 inhabitants was likely the smallest. Residents of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston and Providence wouldn't have all the same challenges as the folks in non-contributing locales like Bangor, Maine or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -- not to mention the ineligible towns and villages all across the nation that have no public transportation or local hospital emergency.

Mayor Bellamy listened to us carefully and offered to speak with her committee and ask them to augment their data collection with some of our ideas. The committee meets in March. If you'd like to weigh in on what we send Mayor Bellamy for suggestions please post your contact information here.

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