Who Counts As Homeless?

Across the country, volunteers are turning out to help count the homeless people in their communities. They will do their best, within the guidelines they’re given. But they won’t come up with anything like an accurate number.

Part of the problem, of course, is that some homeless people will be widely scattered in side streets, alleys, parked cars and other places where they’re hard to find. One client at So Others Might Eat has spoken of spending three days in a trash chute.

But the more basic problem is that many homeless people will be deliberately excluded from the count. Here’s why.

Communities try to count homeless people because it’s a requirement for receiving funds under three so-called Continuum of Care programs. These programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. So communities have to use HUD’s definition of “homeless.”

According to HUD, people count as homeless if they are in:

  • Emergency shelters
  • Transitional housing, including hotel or motel rooms paid for by vouchers
  • “Places not meant for human habitation such as cars, parks, abandoned buildings and on the street”

So people are not counted as homeless if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or if they’re in camping grounds or cheap motels because they can’t afford a month’s worth of rent or a security deposit. Nor are children counted if they’re in institutions because their parents are homeless.

Countless (pun intended) individuals and families are in one of these situations. Blogger Diane Nilan summarizes some of the major reasons. Others include unsafe and unhealthful conditions in shelters, inaccessibility for disabled individuals and just plain lack of shelters, particularly in rural communities.

Granted, it would be difficult to count homeless people doubled up or in motel rooms they’re paying for themselves. But ignoring the fact they exist is hardly an answer. And that’s what HUD did in using the homeless count and other data based on its definition to report on the extent of homelessness in the country.

As a result, neither the Congress nor the American public has a realistic view of how many homeless people there are. And, if we don’t know that, how can we know, except anecdotally, how well–or poorly–existing programs are working?

The last Congress considered bills that would have expanded the HUD definition of “homeless” as part of the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. It will have another chance when it returns to this unfinished task.

What Congress should do is controversial, but the debate is really about who should be served by the COC programs. This is–or should be–a separate issue from the issue of how we count homeless people.

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15 Responses to Who Counts As Homeless?

  1. Joni says:

    Great synopsis Kathryn. “Couch surfers”–particularly among homeless, runaway, and throwaway youth–is another group that’s totally ignored in the count. Like families that are doubled up or staying with relatives, these youth are running through all of their resources–including burning bridges with friends and family–until they have nothing left, and then they might seek out shelter. It would be smarter to work with families in the early stages of homelessness, before all of the long-term negative effects have set in. That said, I agree with you that we need to have an accurate count, regardless of the service model that the feds want to use.

  2. kathrynbaer says:

    Thanks for this important addition to the uncounted and under-served.

    I don’t know what the situation is nationally. (How could anyone know, given the limits in the homeless count?) However, here in my hometown, Washington, D.C., the shortage of appropriate shelter and services for homeless youth is dire. Last year, the Fair Budget Coalition reported that, in any given year, fewer than 12% of local homeless youth were served. According to its report, the District had only 38 emergency shelter beds and 75 transitional housing units to meet the needs of many thousands of homeless youth.

    As you know, many homeless youth are fleeing severe family conflict, physical or sexual abuse and/or egregious neglect. So more is needed than work with families at risk of homelessness, as important as that is. There is also a need for interventions to address other root causes and to help homeless youth overcome the impacts.

  3. [...] Getting Homeless Children Counted I recently wrote about how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homeless” excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families from the annual homeless count. [...]

  4. [...] should be considered homeless for the purposes of HUD-funded programs and services. As I’ve written before, HUD currently uses a highly restrictive definition that excludes large groups of homeless [...]

  5. [...] report on the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area’s 2009 homeless count is out. As I’ve said before, the count doesn’t begin to include all the individuals and families who don’t [...]

  6. [...] individuals and families. The legislation will also preserve, virtually intact, the old, even more restrictive definition used for the annual homeless [...]

  7. [...] Chance To Count Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m not a fan of the annual homeless counts that will soon be conducted. The main problem is that they’re structured to exclude large [...]

  8. [...] In 2009, nearly 20% more D.C. families were counted as homeless than in 2008–703 families, with a total of 1,426 children. And these were only the families considered homeless under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s restrictive definition. [...]

  9. [...] that these are only people who met the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s restrictive definition. We still have no idea how many people are living doubled up with friends or relatives or trying to [...]

  10. [...] I’ve said before, the COC counts must use HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless”. And [...]

  11. [...] I’ve said before, the COC counts must use HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless”. And we can hardly [...]

  12. [...] to tell us how many homeless people there are — only how many the counters find who meet the restrictive definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [...]

  13. [...] the other hand, we do have some progress that’s fairly easy to explain. So within the definitional limits of the PIT counts maybe the rest is real [...]

  14. [...] last January’s one-night survey identified nearly 7,000 homeless people here — a significant undercount, as I’ve often [...]

  15. [...] counts don’t tell us how many homeless people there are — only how many meet the restrictive definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [...]

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