Getting the homeless count right

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Anna Phillips at the Tampa Bay Times reports that the number of homeless in Pinellas County is around 7,000, higher than the last count in 2011 which reported 5,887 homeless.

But don’t take those numbers to the bank.

Even Sarah Snyder, the executive director of the Homeless Leadership Board, which oversaw the count, said the number could be as high as 23,000.  I am not sure what the point of a homeless count is if the number that you count could actually be three times higher than what you come up with.  Why not quadruple? Why not ten times more?

I’m not just picking on a helpless non-profit trying to do a good thing for the homeless. Phillips wrote about the significant problems with the count back in April.

The data collected had “major holes or errors,” according to a homeless board document.

In one instance, under a question asking respondents where they’d slept the night before, people entering the survey information into a database wrote the person’s gender.

Fixing the problems has fallen to staff at the Juvenile Welfare Board and data are not yet available. But what is eventually produced will likely come with caveats.

“Caveats” like: we say 7,000, but hey! Who knows! Could be 23,000!

On the Homeless Leadership Board website (where you cannot find a copy of a document containing the data for the most recent count), they say their mission “is to be the THE leadership organization in ending homelessness in Pinellas County.” I am not sure how they plan to end homelessness if they’re not even certain how many homeless people there really are. 

A critical component is missing in a count of homeless in Pinellas County — which I concede is not as easy as it sounds: a real mobilizing, organizing effort. I worked at the Juvenile Welfare Board when we’d get a reminder that the count was happening soon. Volunteers were encouraged, but at about the same level as an announcement that there was cake in the break room. 

This is nonsense. There a multitude of tools to mobilize, energize, and organize real volunteers to sweep through the county and depict a more accurate count — to deliver results (hint to the Homeless Leadership Board: take a page from the Organizing for Action playbook). 

Counts like these are a critical component in determine governmental and non-profit-related services to needy populations like the homeless. We have to get it right.