Defining homelessness: Who counts?

Sound data lead to sound policy. But when it comes to homelessness, numbers are fluid.

The City of Chicago says that there are 5,922 homeless people on any given night–”about 15,000 for the year. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless says that the daily count is closer to 21,000 and 73,656 for the year.

Chicago Public Schools, which only counts children, said its annual count is 12,512. That’s twice the city’s daily estimate and almost 2,500 shy of the city’s entire annual homeless population.

Part of the problem is that different agencies don’t agree on how to define homelessness. The City of Chicago uses a definition set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that includes people living in shelters and on the streets. Every two years in January, the City of Chicago recruits volunteers to count the homeless by canvassing neighborhoods between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. The effort is known as the Point-in-Time count, a HUD-mandated task that’s administered by the city.

Chicago Public Schools, on the other hand, uses an expanded definition set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. It takes HUD’s definition a step further by including people living in doubled-up housing with family and friends, or unstable situations, like in a motel, hotel, trailer park or foster care.

“[The city’s definition] doesn’t include doubled-up. Me personally, I think that’s a travesty,” said Britt Shawver, executive director of Housing Opportunities for Women. “But I can understand from a policy perspective that if it included doubled- up, when would it end?”

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless prefers the definition that the school district uses–”and so do 68 percent of the 40 homeless service providers who responded to a survey by The Chicago Reporter. The coalition doubts the usefulness of the city’s count because it underestimates the level of housing needed for the homeless population, said Julie Dworkin, the coalition’s director of policy.

James Lewis, the lead statistician behind Chicago’s 2005 and 2007 counts, said the city’s numbers are reasonable for what they are trying to measure–”people on the streets or in shelters.

But the situation is complicated because the federal definition has local implications. The City of Chicago, working with the nonprofit Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, used the count to help determine the number of interim and permanent housing units needed for the city’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness. Mayor Richard M. Daley also used the count to tout the plan’s success.

The plan started in 2003. Counts were done in 2005 and 2007. The tally in 2007 recorded 5,922 homeless people, a 12 percent decrease from 2005. City news releases show that for the next several years, Daley publicized the drop as proof that the plan was working.

“I think the city’s numbers, and I hate to say this, are a little responsive to political demands they need to meet,” Shawver said. “It’s not a piece of interest to say that there’s this dramatic need that they’re failing to meet.”

In its latest reports, the city’s goal is to have 8,700 units of permanent housing when the plan ends in 2012.

A 2009 count is expected to come out this summer, said Betsy Benito, the plan’s project administrator at the Department of Family and Support Services. The alliance said it is in the process of evaluating whether additional housing units are needed.

“Those on the front lines have known for too long it’s been an inadequate definition,” said City Clerk Miguel del Valle to a group of providers at a conference sponsored by The Council on Latino Homelessness and The Chicago Community Trust. “If the definition is inadequate, then the policies that follow are inadequate. We know we must change the definitions.”

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