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A count of homeless Americans this year found more than 560,000 people living in homeless shelters or on the streets. That number comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it's down 2 percent from the year before - an improvement in homelessness, assuming you believe the figures accurately depict the problem. Some people don't believe that. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: There are many ways that you can count who is and isn't homeless. Take Johnny Boykin of Washington, D.C. He hasn't had his own home for about 10 years now, but he doesn't live in a shelter or out on the street. Instead, he couch surfs at his mother's apartment or at friends'.
JOHNNY BOYKIN: You know, so they won't see me outside, you know. It's an overnight thing, you know.
FESSLER: But you can't stay there forever.
BOYKIN: Oh, no, no, no. They get tired of you, you know (laughter). You can't stay even for two days. I mean, you got to move on, you know.
FESSLER: Millions of Americans face a similar situation, doubling up with family and friends because they can't afford anything else. The Department of Housing and Urban Development says they aren't homeless, but the Department of Education, which counts homeless students, says they are.
BARBARA DUFFIELD: Those are the definitions that they use because that, again, more matches the reality for families.
FESSLER: Barbara Duffield is with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. She says families with kids will do whatever they can to avoid living on the streets or in a shelter, even if it means the instability of moving from place to place.
DUFFIELD: Homelessness is much more prevalent and much more serious of an issue in communities across the country than you would gather if you just looked at the HUD numbers.
FESSLER: Which show that on a single night last January, there were 128,000 homeless children in the U.S. - a decline from the year before - but the education Department says the numbers are coming up. It counted more than 1.3 million homeless students last year. Ann Oliva, deputy assistant secretary at HUD, admits that counting homeless youth is difficult and says HUD's numbers might be low. But she thinks including couch surfers is a bad idea if you want to help the most vulnerable kids.
ANN OLIVA: Because it expands the definition so widely for families and youth that it would be very difficult for us to target our resources to young people who are living out on the streets and in shelters.
FESSLER: And if the new numbers show anything, it's that a lot people still need help. HUD counted 48,000 homeless veterans in January - fewer than the year before. Still, says Oliva...
OLIVA: ...This isn't exactly the number that we wanted to see.
FESSLER: Because the administration would like to end veterans' homelessness by the end of this year, a goal that looks increasingly unreachable. Oliva says one problem is that more than 6,000 homeless vets have been given housing vouchers, but can't find apartments that will take them. She says the lack of affordable housing is also why cities like New York and LA are seeing an increase in homelessness, despite the overall decline. Beth Sandor is with the nonprofit group Community Solutions. She thinks the annual HUD count is of limited use, in part because the numbers are already 10 months old.
BETH SANDOR: And if you're trying to solve an emergent problem which is in front of you every day, the data that you need needs to be as real time as the problem is.
FESSLER: So her group is working with dozens of cities to go out and get the names and profiles of all their homeless residents, so they not only know who's out there, but what kinds of help they need to get off the street. Then they can track their progress.
SANDOR: How many people are you capable of placing into permanent housing every month?
FESSLER: Sandor says otherwise, it's all but impossible to know at any given time whether homelessness is going up or down. For couch surfer Johnny Boykin, the most urgent issue is finding a permanent place to live in a city where affordable housing is scarce.
BOYKIN: I really don't know how it's going to work out. I just hope it'll work out.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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