Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Numbers Game

One of the many challenges facing Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force is quantifying the problem they are attempting to address.  By quantifying we mean measuring, or understanding in numeric terms, "how many" people are experiencing homelessness in our community, including what HUD calls "subpopulations" (e.g., how many households with children, how many veterans, how many unaccompanied youth).

2015 PIT Count - Total - Sheltered - Unsheltered
The problem is, what is meant by "how many"?  Direct providers of homeless assistance typically don't have much respect for the figures from the annual Point-in-Time count, conducted every January, which they maintain is two or three times too low.  However, they don't have any hard data to back up their claim, and they don't propose any alternate method of data gathering, despite which, they resist accepting the PITC figures as baselines for purposes of identifying trends or setting targets.  We think this is short-sighted.

2015 PIT Count - Sheltered Households

The relevant question isn't whether the PIT Count figures reflect actual numbers, but whether they are or can be useful in our long-term efforts to bring a functional end to homelessness in our community.  We think the answer to that is, "Yes."

Point-in-time counting is widely acknowledged as the best way to establish valid trend data (also see here and here), which is important because, above all, what communities need to know is whether the problem is shrinking or growing.  For instance, in the 2015 PITC, 774 people in Marion and Polk Counties were counted as experiencing homelessness.  In 2016, that number grew to 857.  Put another way, in the 2015 PITC, we were sheltering 41 homeless families, and in 2016, we were sheltering 48, so we know the trend is upward.   
2016 PIT Count for ROCC Region 7 (Marion & Polk Counties) - Households with Children
Are there literally only 48 families experiencing homelessness in our community at any given time?  No.  Of course not.  That's a number that's impossible to determine.  So, we need just to acknowledge it, and move on, taking care to speak and write in terms of counts and trends, and not literally "how many."  

2016 PIT Count for ROCC Region 7 - Households without Children
Doing that will allow us to move to the more important question, which is, how are we as a community responding?  Well, that's a complex question, but one piece of the answer lies in the data.  We know that in 2015 we counted two families with children as not sheltered, in 2016, we counted only one.  That would seem to suggest we are doing okay by families.  In 2015, we counted 192 unsheltered persons, and in 2016, we counted 215, mostly older adults.  An upward trend, but well within the range "normal" for this community, its policies and programs, which mostly do not subscribe to the Housing First approach. 

2016 PIT Count for ROCC Region 7 - Households with only Children
Which raises another question for the Task Force: do we, as a community, find it acceptable to have 200-600 of our neighbors unsheltered at any given time?  So far, we have.  But someone on the Task Force needs to be asking, what would it take to reduce that number further, and are we, as a community, willing to undertake those measures?  Someone needs to ask, what about 600 to 1,800 cycling through homelessness in our emergency shelters and transitional housing programs?  Are those programs as effective as they could be?  If not, what should they be doing?  Should we focus our resources on successful programs, or, as we have been, share resources fairly evenly across all programs, regardless of results, which we don't even measure?  These are crucial questions for the Task Force, questions which have not yet been raised, and it remains to see if they ever will be. 
[Update 2/15/17: corrected 2016 total homeless amount.] 

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