[Hpn] Homeless count better left to localities, experts say

Morgan W. Brown morganbrown@hotmail.com
Sat, 30 Jun 2001 16:26:18 -0400


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Friday, June 29, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle
[California]
Page A - 23
Homeless count better left to localities, experts say
Census Bureau didn't disclose national tally
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/06/29/MNL109490.DTL>

Anastasia Hendrix, Carol Ness, Chronicle Staff Writers


Despite some high-profile criticism over the U.S.
Census Bureau's decision not to release an overall
count of the nation's homeless, experts and
advocates in the Bay Area believe that it is probably
for the best and prefer to do the counting
themselves.

Edison Gore, deputy chief of the bureau's decennial
management division, said the agency never
intended to publicly release its count because of the
controversy and litigation that erupted after the
figures from the 1990 census became public.

Many activists roundly rejected the results, calling
them wildly inaccurate and railing against politicians
who used them as leverage to lobby against funding
homeless programs.

This time around, the bureau planned to release only
the tallies of those counted in shelters. Officials said
yesterday that they would release those numbers
this fall, instead of waiting until next year, but stood
by their decision not to release an overall count.

The extra effort made to find the homeless in April
2000 by spreading the count over three days and
working with teams of local homeless agencies was
to include as many people as possible in the overall
population count, Gore said.

If the numbers from the homeless count were
released separately, he said, "it was felt that the
numbers might be misconstrued as a 'complete'
count of the homeless, and that wasn't our intent."

Nevertheless, that was not the impression some city
officials got when they were asked to help the
bureau organize the count, said Jessica Heinz, an
assistant city attorney in Los Angeles.

She said the city spent about $300,000 to assist in
the census effort, from conducting sample surveys
to keeping shelters open that would have been
closed during the count.

After learning last Friday that no homeless count
would be forthcoming, Heinz said, both she and the
legislative director of the Los Angeles Homeless
Authority were "blown away."

"There were lots of costs incurred, . . . and we
recognize that, clearly, it's not going to capture
everybody. However, it is a survey we can combine
with other data we have to give an indication of the
magnitude of the problem, " she said.

Current homeless estimates in Los Angeles range
from 40,000 to 60,000, Heinz said.

She contends that the public has a right to know
what the tally was and that the bureau could include
a caveat with the numbers explaining the difficulties
of counting a transient population instead of simply
withholding them.

"The more visible the problem of homelessness is to
the average person, the more likely it is to get
support and funding and job training and programs
that help that population," Heinz said.

But George Smith, director of homeless programs
for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, said that he
"applauds the Census Bureau for being very careful
about how they produce and report those numbers"
and that officials he worked with made their
purpose perfectly clear when they came for the
count in April 2000.

"They informed us immediately that the numbers
wouldn't come out for a long time, if ever, and that
why we were assisting was to get accurate data for
policy and programs," he said. "So we came up
with our own programs to count homeless people."

The San Francisco count, led by Smith and
conducted by about 200 volunteers who fanned out
across the city one October night last year, found
5,376 homeless people. But homeless advocates
contend that there are thousands more.

Paul Boden, head of the Coalition on Homelessness
in San Francisco, said he agrees that time and
money were wasted in the last census count, but
that pales in comparison to the bigger issues of how
the numbers are used and the true scope of the
problem.

"The numbers have been so manipulated that they
are more part of a (public relations) campaign than
an education campaign," he said. "In that way, I
think it might be good that (the census numbers) are
not being released."

Besides, he said, "I don't think the government has
found it to be in their best interest to let people
know the scope of the problem."

Government officials and homeless advocates in
Alameda County said they also are planning to do
their own count of the homeless population, one
they believe will be more accurate than any numbers
the Census Bureau gathered last year.

"Any count the Census Bureau would come up with
is not going to be accurate, " said Kristen Lee of the
county's Housing and Community Development
Department. In last year's count, for example, the
team for the bureau didn't even show up at a place
they had previously arranged to meet volunteers for
the count, she said.

Current estimates of Alameda County's homeless
population range from 9,000 to 12,000, she said,
but that is believed to be conservative. County
officials hope to have the updated count ready by
January.

E-mail the reporters at
ahendrix@sfchronicle.com and
cness@sfchronicle.com. / Chronicle staff writer
Rick Del Vecchio contributed to this report.

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Morgan <morganbrown@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA


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