[Hpn] U.S. Census Bureau Won't Distribute Data on Homeless

coh coh@sfo.com
Thu, 28 Jun 2001 14:29:01 -0700


New York Times 
June 28, 2001 

Bureau Won't Distribute Census Data on Homeless


WASHINGTON, June 27  Reversing the way it handled the data 10 years ago,
the Census Bureau says it will not provide states and cities with the
figures on their homeless populations.

The bureau has said that nationally 280,527 people  up from 228,621 people
in 1990  were counted in homeless shelters, at soup kitchens, on the
streets and at other places identified by local governments in 2000.

"Bear in mind, there was good reason after what happened after the '90
census to think that the numbers would be misused," said Edison Gore, deputy
chief of the 2000 Decennial Census in explaining why the bureau did not
release the homeless figures. The state and city homeless counts released in
1990 were widely viewed as inaccurate.

The decision against release was made several years ago but was overlooked
by many people. It has been criticized by planners from big cities who say
they were urged by the bureau to undertake extraordinary and expensive
measures to help count the homeless during the 2000 census.

At the bureau's request, for example, Los Angeles officials recruited
advocates for the homeless, trained them in conducting the census, provided
escorts for census takers in potentially dangerous places and handed out
blankets and hygiene kits to induce the homeless to cooperate.

"We spent a lot of money on this," said Jessica Heinz, an assistant city
attorney in Los Angeles, "probably about $300,000, and donated a lot of

The Census Bureau action was praised by advocates for the homeless who had
lobbied for the bureau not to release separate figures on homeless people.

For the most part, advocates for the homeless cooperated with the census 10
years ago. Afterward, they said they were appalled when a count they
considered flawed was used by some lawmakers to argue for a reduction in
spending on programs for the homeless.

But some city planners argue that the idea of holding back data because it
could be misinterpreted goes against the bureau's mission to be the provider
of data, not its censor.

"If the bureau thinks there is going to be a problem and people will be
confused about the homeless population," said Joseph Salvo, director of the
population division of the New York City Planning Department, "then the
bureau should educate people, not hold back the data. This could happen with
other populations. Should the bureau hold back data on them too?"

The decision is part of what has become a continuing dispute over how to
count the country's homeless population  a group of people that is
transient and difficult to count. The bureau method of counting people who
live in shelters, at soup kitchens and at various street locations can miss
designating as homeless those people who may have lost their homes and are
temporarily living with friends or relatives.

In 1990, some advocates for the homeless, fearful of a large undercount,
urged some providers of services to the homeless to bar census takers from
entering shelters and soup kitchens.

"The homeless is not a static population," said Barbara Duffield, education
director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group
based in Washington. "It's very misleading to have such a count; it's
virtually impossible and leads to distortion as to the nature of
homelessness and the magnitude of the problem."

Instead of providing state and local figures, the Census Bureau this year
has lumped the homeless into a category of people counted in "other
non-institutional group quarters." In addition to homeless people, this
category includes displaced people living in temporary shelters after
natural disasters, people living in shelters for battered women, and nurses
and interns living in dormitories at military and general hospitals.

The bureau has also been criticized for not releasing information on why it
recommended that the census not be adjusted to compensate for people who
were missed or counted twice.

Some cities, including Los Angeles, have sued the bureau in a bid to force
it to release the results of a survey of 314,000 households that was
designed to check the accuracy of the census. The agency has refused to do
so, and critics say it is suppressing the results of the survey because it
would indicate that adjustment was justified.

Although the dispute of the homeless count is not directly related to the
issue of adjustment, the bureau's action on the homeless has fed the
controversy that surrounds the 2000 census.

"I don't think this is just about the homeless," Ms. Heinz said. "I think
it's the whole thing. Their view is if we hold stuff back that looks like it
has problems, then no one will criticize us."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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