Homeless Numbers Lie

Well, as you know, numbers are just numbers.  The only lying being done is by people who give false numbers for things.  Sadly, that is exactly what is being done again and again in the homeless industry.  So much depends on numbers, especially funding.  This motivates people working in the homelessness industry to present the best numbers possible.  And, sometimes, they are motivated to stretch the truth by stretching the numbers.  Of course, if the homeless industry was adequately funded their might be less of this manipulation of the truth – (I can hope, can’t I?).  I saw it happen all the time in the Nashville Rescue Mission, the constantly over estimated the number of meals they served, etc.

But there’s a bigger issue these days as the media is being made use of by those who have agendas.  Their motivation to tell fibs with numbers might be based on a sincere desire to help the homeless, but they are still spreading mistruths that could ultimately do more harm than good.  When you set yourself up as an authority on any particular subject, people will usually trust what you say without going through the work of verifying your statements.  And these people will then develop expectations according to that info you are spreading.  If what you say is incorrect, then people’s expectations will not be met and they will become disappointed, not just in you, (because they might still believe you to be an expert) but will also become disappointed in the subject matter.   For example, if you tell people that, in a year’s time you will reduce homelessness by 50%,, but after a year passes and there are just as many homeless as before, people will put most of the blame on the homeless for missing that goal.  This in turn will cause people to be less likely to support homeless causes in the future.

Currently, the biggest problem is with organizations throwing around homeless people totals, which all begins with the “Point In Time” (PIT) census, held every year in the middle of winter in the middle of the night.   All other homeless population numbers are based off the PIT count.  When we look at the methods used to count the homeless we immediately see a problem.  Not all homeless people are counted.  They may be overlooked, or they may be purposely avoiding the count.  Because of this it is fairly correct to say that the PIT counts underestimate the homeless population by 25% or more.  The day and time of the PIT counts are always advertised in advance, so anyone not wanting to be counted can take measures to either move from their regular location on the streets, or if they have the resources, to get into a hotel or a friend’s home, at least for the night.

It stands to reason then, if the total homeless population count is off by 25%, then all other subcategories are off as well.  So, if someone extrapolates more numbers, perhaps saying that they’ve reduced Veterans homelessness by 7.2 percent, they’re really just pulling that number out of their behinds.  It’s a wild guess at best and mostly useless in any real context.


About Kevin Barbieux

I have been diagnosed as being chronically homeless. I write about my experiences and opinions of being homeless
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