In his commentary in the UT 1 last Sunday, John Wilkens offered a creative analogy to the annual homeless Point-in-Time Count (PITC2) when he compared it to checking your bank balance on the same date every year. The metaphor was particularly suitable this year because the City of San Diego had just opened three mega sprung-tents that removed 600 homeless individuals from the street by the time of the count. That’s nearly half of all of the 1,467 individuals in City of San Diego emergency shelters on January 29, 2018. Skewed data? That’s not the half of it!
Homeless advocate, Michael McConnell, is a vocal cheerleader for data being the necessary foundation to any successful plan for solving homelessness. If the data is accurate and used to establish sound policies and allocations of resources, I would agree. But for years, I’ve been pointing out a red flag warning that the PITC data being used for the City and County plans is seriously flawed, for one very vulnerable population – homeless families 3. You can consider this my annual bashing of the annual Point-in-Time Count.
Leaders in the “homeless industry” continue to respond to my prodding about the dearth of services for homeless families, with “Families usually get themselves out of homelessness without outside assistance.” In fact, the section on Homeless Families in the 2018 PITC Report concluded, “Fortunately, homelessness among families is not common on the streets, and homeless families tend to find resources in shelters and other service provider networks. “ Is it any wonder that in a KPBS interview4 last October, seasoned homeless provider, Bob McElroy of the Alpha Project, the nonprofit that managed a temporary encampment provided by the City of San Diego in response to the Hep A outbreak, expressed his surprise that they had 40 children in the camp! If your picture of homelessness is based on PITC data, reality can certainly be surprising.
Why is the data on families so wrong?
According to the PITC, there were only 495 homeless families in San Diego County. You would think, with the lives of vulnerable people hanging in the balance, that they arrived at this number with solid research. Here’s the methodology:
Of the 1,129 unsheltered individuals who were interviewed for the PITC survey, there were only 23 unique households with at least one adult and one child. i.e. Homeless Families. That’s 2.04% of those surveyed. They assume this is an accurate representation of the percentage of homeless people in the county who are families.
2.04% of the total of 4,990 unsheltered homeless individuals counted on January 29th
= 102 unsheltered families in the entire county
+ 393 actual families who were in shelters that night
= 495 homeless families
Seriously! Seriously! That’s how they determined that there were 18 fewer homeless families than the previous year, resulting in a (drum-roll please) 3% decrease in family homelessness! Amazing when you realize that homeless families did this without any help!
So how do I know this number is hogwash!
According to the latest count of homeless students in San Diego County5 there were 22,314 public school students recorded as being homeless at any point during the 2015-16 school year! How relevant is data from two years ago? Let’s make it relevant using the same math they used for the PITC which indicates that family homelessness has decreased 9% since 2016. So 91% of the school numbers from 2016 should cover any possible decrease. Remember that these numbers don’t include children too young to be in school, or those kept out of school due to their homeless situation or because they are being home-schooled. (Would that be homeless-schooled in this case?) How could 20,305 homeless children be in 495 families? Even if every family had four children (more than double the census average for single parent household), you would still have over 5,000 homeless families in the County – not 500. That’s some seriously flawed data!
Homeless Families deliberately make themselves invisible
Part of the discrepancy is due to the difference between how families with children survive homelessness versus how homeless people are counted in the PITC. A mom (and/or dad) with children isn’t going to be out there on the streets making herself and her children visible to be counted. Just the opposite – she’s going to do whatever it takes to keep her children safe, not only from criminals, but also from Child Protective Services, who could take her children away. We ticket and impound vehicles where people sleep, so if a family is fortunate enough to have a car, they are not parking it where the PITC volunteers can see them. Now, HUD has determined that families living in an RV cannot be considered homeless, so they aren’t being counted either. Families crowed into a bedroom in grandma’s house, or the current boyfriend’s living room or back porch, or garage, or a flea-bag hotel or an SRO, are also not counted, even though any one of those situations could end at any time, and most are not suitable for children.
Families are defined out of homelessness
The other problem is how HUD defines homelessness. Per HUD, a person is considered homeless only when they reside in a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, or on the street or a supervised shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements by charitable organizations or federal, state, or local government programs.
Schools use a different criteria to determine homelessness, based on the definition in the McKinney Vento Act. This includes students whose nighttime residence is shared housing with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reason as well as a hotel or motel, a temporary shelter, or unsheltered. Even with this much more realistic definition, it is likely that school data underrepresents the extent of homelessness among public school students because of sensitivity around the issue. It’s often left up to school staff to recognize that a child is homeless and to ask them about it.
Why is it important to have a realistic count of homeless families?
Nobody is pressuring our legislators to solve a problem you can’t see. County supervisors, city council persons and mayors have their hands full dealing with the most visible homeless people who are using the most resources and real or perceived problems. Citizens concerned with safety, property values, tourism and health, are not calling their council person to complain about the mom with four kids holed up in her friend’s garage, because most complainers don’t even know she’s there. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so public resources aren’t being expended on hidden families.
Wilkens correctly explains that the PITC is necessary for the “fair” allocation of HUD funds to regions throughout the nation. So even if you admit that the PITC misses over half of the people who are actually homeless, one could assume that the ratio of undercounting is the same nationwide and is as good as any in determining which regions need the biggest piece of the Federal funding pie. The problem arises when those same numbers are used to allocate resources to specific populations of homeless people with an inaccurate understanding of their homeless situation.
I don’t foresee a change in HUD policies in the current political climate, but we can compensate for their flawed thinking and data on the local level. San Diego County and cities should consider data from multiple sources when making decisions on how to best address homelessness in our region. As noted in the 2018 PITC Report, “…homelessness is traumatizing for a child and may impact them the rest of their lives. Children who experience homelessness fall behind their peers in health, education, and economic achievement.” It is clearly to the benefit of our community as well as our souls, to see to it that those 22,000 children are counted and safely housed.
1San Diego Union Tribune: May 20, 2018 What the homeless numbers say — and what they don’t, John Wilkens
2Regional Taskforce on the Homeless: 2018 Point-InTime Count Annual Report
3San Diego Free Press: San Diego’s Hidden Homeless, November 19, 2015, by Jeeni Criscenzo,
4KPBS: Homeless Campground In San Diego Providing Lifeline For 40 Children
5Kidsdata.org Homeless Public School Students – San Diego County
Jeeni Criscenzo is a writer and performance poet. She founded Amikas in 2009 to house homeless women and children. She is currently retired but remains a dedicated advocate for homeless families.