But more cities are carefully tracking these populations — and making progress in addressing the problem.
Many Americans imagine that the homeless are mostly people who made bad choices. They imagine the homeless are mostly single men. They imagine the government is trying to end homelessness.
The government pretends that the problem is smaller than it actually is. It estimated last year that nearly 568,000 Americans were homeless in January 2019. That figure is not just badly out of date. It was clearly wrong at the time, too.
We don’t know exactly how many people are homeless in America. We don’t even have a particularly good guess. But the federal estimate relies on local one-night-only headcounts of the homeless population, conducted at the end of January, that seem almost designed to produce an undercount. A federal audit recently described the method as unreliable, which means that the government’s ignorance is impeding efforts to provide necessary aid to people in desperate need.
We do know how many people are homeless in Kern County, Calif. The county, which includes the city of Bakersfield, tries to keep track of people who experience homelessness throughout the year. It’s at the forefront of a new, data-driven approach to making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring. It seems to be working.
There is an urgent need for the government to overhaul its approach to homelessness. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, millions of American families struggled to afford a safe place to live — a housing crisis driven primarily by soaring prices in major metropolitan areas. The pandemic has made a bad situation that much worse.
The clear goal of federal policy ought to be the minimization of homelessness. The first step is for the federal government to get its arms around the problem. It should require every community that receives federal funding for programs intended to help the homeless to emulate Kern County and a growing number of other cities and counties that track people who are homeless, by name, throughout the year. Local governments, of course, needn’t wait for federal prodding to get started.
The shortfalls of the current federal approach begin with a narrow definition of homelessness. The January head count, which is typically conducted late at night, includes only people who are found in places not meant for human habitation, including public shelters, cars and doorways. It does not count people who have found temporary shelter in hotel rooms or campgrounds or in a friend’s living room. The difference is large, particularly for a count that is generally conducted on one of the coldest days of the year, when people might be especially prone to find shelter if they can.
In 2017, for example, the government put the total homeless population at 550,996. That same year, school districts across the country, using a broader definition, reported 1.35 million homeless students, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That number, it bears emphasizing, is just a count of homeless students — not their parents or other family members, and not the rest of the homeless population.
The narrow federal definition is sometimes justified as focused on those most in need of help, those who can’t even borrow a safe place to sleep. But the government’s approach also amounts to taking a snapshot of a movie. The number of people who are homeless during the course of a year is significantly larger than the number on any given night.
The counting process also is less precise than might be implied by the resulting federal report that put the number of homeless Americans at exactly 567,715. Cities generally rely on volunteers, and larger cities often sample rather than attempt a comprehensive count. New York, for example, divides the city into 7,000 zones, and then actually tries to count the number of homeless people in 1,500 of those zones. Advocacy groups have highlighted long lists of blind spots, including people who are in hospitals on the night of the count and therefore not tallied.
In recent years, New York has paid people to pretend to be homeless, to check the accuracy of its survey teams. There’s good reason to worry: A 2008 study that tested the technique found that the counters missed 29 percent of the “homeless” actors. But most cities don’t impose similar quality controls and submit what amounts to an estimate.
It’s not uncommon — and, under the circumstances, hardly surprising — for jurisdictions to report annual swings of as much as 50 percent in the number of people reportedly living without shelter. These swings are almost certainly incorrect.
The government knows all this. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office in July 2020 concluded the counts “did not provide a reliably precise estimate of the homeless population.”
The reliance on bad data makes it harder to justify necessary funding to help the homeless and allocate it correctly. Inaccurate counts also mean that communities are simply aiming at the wrong targets. The Obama and Trump administrations pushed to eliminate chronic homelessness among veterans; many cities met the specified goals only to find that they hadn’t solved the problem, because of chronic undercounting.
The approach of tracking homeless people by name is backed by Community Solutions, a New York nonprofit that has persuaded 83 communities across the country to use its software and to accept its assistance, including Washington, Jacksonville, Fla., and Riverside County, Calif. Many of those communities are focused for now on their populations of homeless veterans, but the same methods serve for other populations, too.
Community Solutions also offers a useful definition of what it means to eliminate homelessness. It aims to reduce homelessness to “functional zero,” meaning that the number of people experiencing homelessness is smaller than the number that are successfully placed in housing in the average month.
Better data allows cities to make better use of existing resources. One striking measure is that 93 percent of the reduction in homelessness in cities that have adopted the Community Solutions approach has been achieved without new spending on housing. In Chattanooga, Tenn., the data showed that people placed in subsidized housing were returning to homelessness at a relatively high rate; the city focused resources on retention.
It also helps to justify additional resources. After Montgomery County, Md., joined the program, county officials agreed to fund more housing for the homeless on the basis of the data.
In the cities where homelessness is concentrated, like New York and Los Angeles, the sheer scale of the crisis makes it difficult to focus on the individual cases. But in the words of Rosanne Haggerty, the founder of Community Solutions, “Homelessness is an inadequate description of a million different housing crises.” The problems are individual, and until the government knows how many people need help, it’s impossible to know how far America’s communities still have to go.