Counting the People Experiencing Homelessness

by | Oct 18, 2010 | Uncategorized

Like many others, Richard R. Troxell prefers the term, “people experiencing homelessness” — and for a very good reason. Just “homeless” sounds too hardcore, a permanent condition, like an amputated limb. Sadly, in many cases, that is all too accurate. Far too many Americans have been experiencing homelessness for a very long time. Sometimes, “people experiencing homelessness” makes for an awkward sentence, so perhaps occasionally shortening it can be forgiven.

People experiencing homelessness are often the very same people who have experienced being housed, for most of their lives. It’s a good thing to keep in mind. They never wanted or expected to experience homelessness. No young person, reflecting on his or her future, thinks, “My plan is to be a wanderer with no address, destitute and hungry, hounded from the park to the street corner to jail by the solid citizens, and, maybe someday, set on fire while I’m asleep. There’s a career path with real promise!”

The phrase “people experiencing homelessness” is also a good reminder that you or I might someday share that experience, if we haven’t already. In fact, as the economic situation worsens, the odds that any given person will eventually experience homelessness increase dramatically.

For the individuals and organizations that care, keeping track of the numbers is important. Every 10 years, of course, the government takes a census. We looked back at an article written in the spring by Newly Paul, about how the census was conducted in Los Angeles. In many cities, only one day was devoted to an all-out effort, but because LA is so gigantic, it had allotted three days to the task, beginning March 29. Paul interviewed Herb Smith, president of the Los Angeles Mission, who tried his best to encourage all his clients to stand up and be taken notice of. Smith’s plea was,

If you are homeless and want a meal, get counted. If you’re homeless and you need a bed tonight, get counted. If you are homeless and you need a bus token, get counted. If you need showers or shelter, get counted. Because by getting counted it will provide all of us the resources to serve the community of L.A. and particularly the homeless.

In the Mission lobby, a census official had a table set up where people could fill out forms, and the television played a constantly repeating message about why that paperwork should be filled out. Other census workers visited soup kitchens and food vans, as well as areas where the more fortunate at least had vehicles to sleep in. They visited transitional and emergency shelters, as well as unregistered labor camps and settlements in remote and undeveloped areas.

These expeditions can be scary, and the safety of the census workers had to be considered, so the enumerators didn’t go alone. They were prepared by some training in how to ask questions in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. When personal contact seemed too dangerous, or if the enumerators met with outright refusal, they were authorized to fill out the forms themselves, designating the counted as “Person 1,” “Person 2,” and so on.

There was, as always, resistance. Sometimes, folks who have had everything taken away from them were reluctant to part with the last thing they owned, personal information about their private lives. Some were cynical or hopeless, reluctant to take part in an exercise that they were pretty sure wouldn’t have done them any personal good, and possibly would not be of benefit to anyone.

This is a shame, because numbers do matter. Huge federal funds are at stake, as well as state and local money. A lot of it earmarked for housing programs and other aid for those experiencing homelessness, and every city wants to get as much of the pie as it is entitled to.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has decreed that the homeless should be counted not just every 10 years, but every two years, in order to keep on top of the problem, and to make sure that the funds go where they are supposed to. In fact, many communities go further than that, doing a homeless census every year, on the last Wednesday in January.

Fred Berman, a Census Coordinator with the Department of Human Services Programs in Cambridge, MA, describes how seven teams of city employees and volunteers fanned out before dawn on that day, trying to get an accurate count. The weather makes a big difference — it’s January, after all. A person who might be accessible in milder weather has a tendency to find the warmest possible place to wait out the cold, a place where census workers might not think to look.

These efforts always depend heavily on the information provided by grassroots organizations and service providers. In Cambridge, the teams are guided to the right locations by members of the First Step program, among others. They do a shelter count, a street count, and a hospital count, and are particularly interested in knowing how many families with children are experiencing homelessness at any given time.

It’s great that municipalities and organizations take such trouble to figure out efficient ways of enumerating the people living in the street. Even better will be the day when there is no need for the homeless census, because everybody is under a roof.

Source: “Census 2010 aims to get an accurate count of homeless,”, 03/24/10
Source: “2010 Cambridge Homeless Census,”, 2010
Image by Spotreporting, used under its Creative Commons license.