According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 549,928 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2016. This is an odd way to phrase how many people are homeless in America, but, according to HUD, it’s the best number they can provide.
HUD relies on volunteers to count those living on the streets and other unsuitable places on a particular night in January every other year. The number is called a “snapshot” and used as a measure in determining a community’s competitiveness for homelessness assistance programs. Researchers say it’s imperfect but it does the best job of estimating the size of homelessness in America.
Problems with the PIT count are famous. How can volunteers accurately count people living in places they shouldn’t be living, attempting to hide from the authorities and the elements in January? And how can HUD use that flawed census in determining funding programs?
In fact, critics decry the absence of large populations of homeless people in the census who avoid the streets, such as families, women, and youth.
But HUD is not the only federal agency that collects data on people experiencing homelessness. The U.S. Department of Education collects data on homeless students. The McKinney-Vento Act requires that school districts identify students experiencing homelessness. Under this law, states report data on the number of homeless students enrolled in public schools, as well as the characteristics of these students.
Students are identified as homeless if they lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This definition of for homeless students is much broader than HUD’s definition of homelessness. For example, under the Department of Education’s definition, students experiencing homelessness may be temporarily sharing housing with other people due to loss of housing, economic hardship, living in hotels or motels, or living in transitional housing. HUD’s definition fails to recognize these situations as being homeless.
For 2015-2016, 1.3 million students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools were reported as homeless children or youth. These numbers include families and youth who have been identified by school personnel as meeting the education definition of homelessness. The wide disparity in how homelessness is defined and quantified among federal agencies is alarming.
The Department of Education also tracks youth who are homeless and not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian including those living on their own or staying temporarily with someone who is not their legal guardian. This could mean friends, grandparents, others that have not assumed legal guardianship.
According to the Department’s data, the vast majority of homeless youth and children are with their parent(s) or guardian. That means that even though HUD has an overly narrow definition of homelessness, a count of family homelessness could be estimated through the Department of Education’s data.
The difference in definitions is crucial as communities understand the extent of the homeless problem. For example, in San Diego city, the HUD Point In Time count counted 5,619 people – an increase of 10 percent since last year. But that number rarely represents families, youth, and children. According to the San Diego Unified School District, 7,082 were reported homeless in 2015-2016, up from 6761 in 2014-2015. Assuming 1.5 children per family, more than 4,700 homeless families should be added to San Diego’s 2016 Point In Time count, an 83 percent increase in homelessness.
Understanding the full scope of homeless data and populations in a community is crucial to understanding how to address the problem. Unfortunately, many communities fail to include all data on homeless families, youth, and children and, therefore, implement programs that exacerbate homelessness among those populations. Failing to understand the full scope also causes communities to limit approaches and services that help this important population overcome poverty and homelessness. One size does not fit all and it is important for the federal, state, and local governments – as well as philanthropy – to understand that.