How Many Homeless People on the Head of a Pin?
The current controversy about Wisconsin’s job numbers brings to mind the longstanding debate about how to count people who are homeless. For several years, the federal government insisted that people are homeless only if they are living in a shelter or transitional housing or on the street, in a car, or other place not fit for human habitation.
So you’re 22 years old. The apartment building where you had been living with three other guys was condemned by the city because of hundreds of code violations and you had to leave your apartment. For a couple of days, you stayed with somebody you met at a bar but he’s telling you to get out by the end of the week. Until very recently, the federal government would not consider you to be homeless and you would not be included in the regular census (Point in Time Count) of homeless people that every community is required to conduct in order to receive federal homeless funding.
Those of us who thought the homeless count should include families doubling up, youth who were couch-surfing (moving from place to place every night), and others in precarious and dangerous housing situations railed against the fed’s restrictive definition. Each time, Milwaukee did a Point in Time count, we would be careful to add that there were many more homeless people than reflected in the actual counted number. For example, in January of 2011, the local census counted 1,466 homeless people. We figured the real number was at least three times larger.
Still, the homeless count measure was reliable across time (year to year) and across sites. Cincinnati, Nashville, San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee all counted homeless people the same way using the same definition. This made the Point in Time a valid measure. Try as we might to counter the official Point in Time with other measures, we had to own up to the fact that the Point in Time was the federal government’s official count of people who were homeless. This was the count reported to the U.S. Congress. Like it or not, it was the accepted measure.
The same is true with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics annual employment report. This is the accepted measure for unemployment. Flawed in its methodology perhaps (just like the Point in Time) but consistent over time and across sites. Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin employment data all calculated the same. Sure, there are a lot of ways to calculate employment/unemployment but until the federal government changes the measure, that’s the standard we all have to live with whether we’re running for office or just writing a report.
A copy of Milwaukee’s 2011 Point in Time report can be found at www.milwaukeecoc.org.