Homeless Counts Should Be Counting Backwards

02/01/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

One, two, three...

In the darkness of early morning, the counting can be monotonous, an exercise that almost puts you to sleep. I have written before about the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandated homeless counts that occur throughout this country during the month of January. Municipalities have to count their homeless population at least every other year, or they will lose their HUD funding. Some cities count every year.

Twelve, thirteen, fourteen...

Counting how many people are languishing on our streets, however, is good. How can we address a sad human tragedy without knowing the extent of the problem? How can we know if we are successfully reducing the number of people on our streets without regularly assessing our work through counts?

Counting makes those who spend taxpayers' money accountable. When our country spends a couple of billion dollars per year on addressing homelessness, we should expect to know if this investment is working.

Thirty two, thirty three...

But I know by experience that counting sleeping heads in the cold chill of darkness, with their bodies covered by ragged blankets or hidden in tents, is not an exact science. It is more like counting sheep. Hidden sheep. In fact, counting calories is a much easier task then counting the thousands of people hidden in the crevices of this country's landscape.

Was that a body bundled into a blanket under that bridge, or just some tossed away old clothing? Are there three people sleeping in that van, or just one? Inexperienced volunteers are not asked to wake people up, just to count bodies.

Eighty four, eighty five...

We really need to be counting stories, not heads. If our community is going to mobilize hundreds of good-hearted volunteers to wake up at four in the morning to count our homeless neighbors, we really should count how many heart-wrenching stories are on the streets.

Excuse me, but can I ask you a few questions that could help us provide you housing... How long have you been living on the streets? Do you have any health issues? Are you a former armed services member? How old are you? Where is your family? How did you end up on the streets?

One-hundred one, one-hundred two...

Imagine if successful entry into a hospital was based on how well a person can navigate difficult entry procedures. Those people who are healthiest- perhaps they just have flu symptoms or have enough money to hire someone to help - would access healthcare first. A very sick person with cancer and no money would never be able to get in.

Sometimes, the homeless service world is the same way. We help those who can access our services, or who can be easily housed, first. With counting homeless persons, and the pressure of reducing the number of people on our streets, we are tempted to find easy success, those homeless persons who can navigate the difficult procedures of being housed.

One-hundred twenty three, one-hundred twenty four...

But as soon as we start discovering people's stories, as soon as we ask questions that reveal personal, heart-wrenching struggles, the temptation of finding easy success disappears, because we want to help the most hurting. The most sick. It is just our compassionate tendency to first help the person who is injured the most.

It is just natural to help the most vulnerable people on the streets. We really should be counting stories, not just counting heads.

One-hundred sixty five, one-hundred sixty six...

Actually, we really should be counting the number of people we are housing.

Just imagine if rather than waking up at four in the morning to count sleeping sheep on our streets, we are waking them up to listen to their stories. So that we can prioritize the most hurting people on the streets and give them an apartment that is waiting for them.

Wait a minute. That imaginative activity is already happening. Cities and communities around the country are part of a movement to house 100,000 of America's most vulnerable homeless neighbors. Volunteers are waking up early to create a vulnerability index that prioritizes who will be housed first.

Now, that is the kind of count that really counts. In a way, they are counting backwards, until the day there are zero Americans sleeping on our streets.

Three, two, one, zero...