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The Difficulty of Counting the Homeless

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The Difficulty of Counting the Homeless

The Difficulty of Counting the Homeless

The Difficulty of Counting the Homeless

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How many people are homeless in this country? The number has been debated for years, and the answers often have more to do with politics than reality. This month, volunteers in many cities are trying to make an actual count of people living on the streets. But the method isn't foolproof.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris with a question that has puzzled even the experts.

How many people are homeless in this country? The numbers have been debated for years, and the answers floating around often have to do more with politics than reality. In many cities this month, volunteers are trying to make an actual count of people living on the streets.

But as NPR's Rachel Jones discovered in New York, that method isn't exactly foolproof.

RACHEL JONES: At 2:45 a.m. on a freezing cold winter's night, the courtyard of St. George's Episcopal Church is kind of like a spooky echo chamber.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello, good night, good morning.

JONES: There are eight piles of filthy blankets here and no sign of life, that is until one of the piles starts moving.

Unidentified Man #2: Good morning, sir. Can we offer you some assistance, some help?

Unidentified Man #3: Are you okay tonight?

JONES: Twenty-one-year-old Bocce Checkmadian(ph) leads this group of volunteers. They're patrolling a nine by three block area in Manhattan's Gramercy Park neighborhood. Checkmadian is a New York University student. So are most of the others.

He has to remember the ground rules. Stay on the sidewalks, no ducking down alleys. If a person looks homeless but they're inside a restaurant instead of on the street, you can't count them.

But Checkmadian and fellow student David Levi(ph) can't agree on the rule about private property.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible). If this is on the block.

Unidentified Man #5: But it's a private place.

Unidentified Man #4: If this is open. If you could open the gate -

JONES: Volunteers like these will be out until 5:00 a.m. all across the city. Then, officials will start tallying up the numbers, which they'll release in April. But just how useful will that estimate be?

The debate over just how many Americans are homeless has brewed since the early '80s. Back then, activist Mitch Schneider tried to shock the public by estimating there were three million. Researcher Martha Burt said not so fast.

Ms. MARTHA BURT (Urban Institute): Schneider made that up, basically.

JONES: You feel that that was just pulled out of thin air?

Ms. BURT: I don't feel that, I know that.

JONES: Burt is with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. She's conducted lots of surveys and counts of homeless people over the years and says they're inexact at best. There are too many uncontrollable variables.

Ms. BURT: Many homeless people are actually trying not to be seen. That's the biggest one. Then there are issues of safety, there are issues of weather, there are issues of differences in different parts of the country as to which is the highest-risk season -

JONES: For example, is winter really the best time to take a count?

How different would it be if you did it in July?

Mr. ROB HESS (Department of Homeless Services, New York City): Well, I mean, it depends how you look at it.

JONES: Rob Hess directs Homeless Services for the city of New York. He says it doesn't matter what time of year the count is done.

Mr. HESS: I would argue that the most chronically homeless individuals, kind of the toughest to serve, are much more likely to be on the street in the wintertime than in the summertime, and so it cuts both ways.

JONES: Nevertheless, Hess says these counts give cities some baseline numbers they can work with. The Bush administration's point man on homelessness agrees.

Mr. PHILIP MANGANO (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness): I don't think anyone is saying this is an absolute science.

JONES: Philip Mangano is executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Though these homeless counts aren't scientifically accurate, Mangano says they help cities stay on top of growing trends.

Mr. MANGANO: There's some research that's now showing that one in every 100 Americans is impacted by homelessness. That is, that person themselves becomes homeless in the course of a year.

JONES: Here at St. George's Church, the volunteers eventually decide to count the man in the courtyard. Checkmadian scribbles some notes before the group heads back down 16th Street. One of the men, 52-year-old Nathaniel Williams, says he never knew the city counted homeless people. He's been on the streets for three years and says it's like nobody notices.

Mr. NATHANIEL WILLIAMS: Definitely I feel invisible because this is Gramercy Park, second richest area in Manhattan. Everybody here is above me. Very rarely somebody offers a cup of coffee, so you have to be invisible.

JONES: Nobody knows for sure how many homeless people there are in New York City or anywhere else. That number can change from day to day. I went back to St. George's Church the night after the count. Same courtyard, same filthy blankets, but this time there were only three piles instead of eight.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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