[Hpn] NCH's position on the Census and homelessness
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 02 Jul 2001 12:28:27 -0400
Below, FYI, is a forward of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH)
position on the Census and homelessness which was just recently posted on
their Web site.
Morgan W. Brown
NCH's position on the Census and homelessness:
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH):
The 2000 Census and Homelessness
What is NCH's position on the 2000 Census and homelessness?
NCH believes that people without housing should be counted by the Census for
the same reasons that people with housing should be counted -- in order to
have more comprehensive demographic information about communities, including
more accurate data on poverty.
However, NCH opposes a separate "count" of people in homeless situations
because such a number would be, by its very nature, both inaccurate and
misleading, and therefore lead to uninformed decision-making by
A separate "homeless count" would be inaccurate because:
Logistically, it is impossible to count all the people experiencing
homelessness at any point in time. Many people in homeless situations stay
in locations unknown or unreachable by enumerators, such as abandoned
buildings, campgrounds, cars, or share an accommodation temporarily with
other people due lack of alternative arrangements (commonly referred to as
"doubled up"). One national study of people who had experienced homelessness
found that the most common places people stayed were vehicles; other common
places were makeshift housing, such as tents, boxes, caves, or boxcars.
Data gathered from shelters only reflect the capacity of shelters (i.e.
available shelter beds). Yet many shelters are full, and regularly turn
people away due to lack of capacity. Last year the U.S. Conference of Mayors
reported that 23 percent of requests for emergency shelter went unmet due to
lack of available beds. In addition, many shelters have eligibility rules
that prevent certain groups of people (two-parent families, families with
boys over the age of 12, people with addiction disorders, disabled people,
people with no incomes) from accessing shelter. People who are turned away
from shelter are forced to live in other places, such as doubled-up with
other people, in outside locations, in cars, campgrounds, etc.
A separate "homeless count" would be misleading because:
People experiencing homelessness are not a static population. In most cases,
homelessness is not a permanent condition, but a state of extreme poverty
marked by a temporary lack of housing. People move in and out of
homelessness throughout time, such that more people will experience
homelessness over the course of time than at any one point in time. For
example, a study of the public shelter system in New York City and
Philadelphia found that in New York City, a single shelter bed accommodates
four different people in the course of a year, while in Philadelphia, each
bed accommodates six different persons per year. A one-day, or "snap-shot"
estimation of homelessness therefore distorts the reality of homelessness
for most people who experience it. A recent study by the Urban Institute
estimates that at least 2.3 million people, and as many as 3.5 million
people, will experience homelessness at least once over the course of a
A Census Bureau report noted that 280,527 people were counted in homeless
shelters, at soup kitchens, on the streets and at other places in 2000. What
does this number mean?
This number was taken from a report released in February as part of the
documentation for its decision not to adjust Census numbers for various
statistical factors. In the case of people counted at emergency and
transitional shelters, soup kitchens, and identified outdoor locations, the
Census attempted to adjust the numbers to account for people who were not
present on the day of the count, but who normally would be present at those
locations. However, due to problems in data collection, the Census Bureau
was unable to make those adjustments. The Census Bureau has concerns about
the quality of this data, and will not release the data without accompanying
discussion and documentation of quality issues. The Census Bureau is also
investigating the discrepancies between this data and other information. A
recent report by the Urban Institute estimates that at least 800,000 people
are in homeless situations on any given night, with between 2.3 million and
3. 5 million people experiencing homelessness at least once over the course
of a year.
What are NCH’s thoughts about this data?
The release of this estimate confirms NCH's concerns about the inaccuracy
and distortion of a separate count, as well as the inappropriateness of such
a count as a measure of the magnitude of homelessness. A conservative
estimate of known emergency shelter and transitional beds is higher than the
total number of people in homeless situations estimated in the Census
report. Many communities reported that the Census missed homeless service
locations, and/or that enumerators were unable to obtain information because
of language differences. These facts, in addition to the problems with
counts described above, mean that the estimate released by the Census cannot
be used as a measure of homelessness.
Some argue that a separate Census homeless count is needed in order to
justify funding for shelters and other service programs. Does the lack of a
separate homeless count endanger funding for these programs?
No. While "snap-shot", or point-in-time estimates of homelessness are part
of the documentation required for some federal homeless assistance funds,
local service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and local units
of government are clearly more qualified than the Census Bureau and their
enumerators to conduct such a count. Local communities are more likely to
have the cultural and language competencies to obtain a service count of all
the service providers in their communities (not just shelters and soup
kitchens). In addition, local communities are better able to identify more
of the places where people live outside -- beyond the very limited targeted
locations that the Census utilized, which did not include abandoned
buildings, campgrounds, temporary outdoor locations, etc.
The Census Bureau spent a lot of money and time attempting to enumerate
people in homeless situations. If the Bureau is not going to release these
numbers, what was the point of this effort?
It is important to make attempts to count people in homeless situations for
the same reasons that all people should be counted: to gain more
comprehensive demographic information about communities. People experiencing
homelessness have extremely low incomes, so the Census effort was especially
important in order to gain accurate information about poverty. This is
imperative in order for communities to be able to obtain the Federal
resources needed to address the needs of people living in poverty, including
the resources needed to prevent and end homelessness.
What should Congress do?
The discussion about the 2000 Census should center on the fact that ten
years after the 1990 Census, people in the United States are still
experiencing homelessness. There are numerous research studies that indicate
the significant growth in the number of people without homes and at risk of
experiencing homelessness. Yet, despite existing research, we have not
invested our resources to end homelessness -- even after years of incredible
economic growth. Congress should not waste time arguing about how many
people are experiencing homelessness, but rather focus on efforts to end
homelessness through affordable housing, livable incomes, accessible and
comprehensive health care, and the protection of civil rights.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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