Quantifying Suffering

It was a warm, summer evening in August 2006 as authorities in Denver attempted to finally get a grasp on a problem that is almost impossible to measure – homelessness.

One of the biggest problems, both in helping the homeless and in combating the effects of homelessness (the militancy of language often determined by the effect of homelessness on personal economic security or worldview of the author) is in determining whether any measure actually helps or hurts in the long run.

Any ‘project’ to help the homeless usually has at least one of three objectives. The first aim is purely individual, an attempt to get that person or family off the streets and ideally into a situation where they will neither be homeless nor threatened by it. The second goal is at a community level. Not even the most dedicated social worker can truthfully deny the negative effects that homelessness has on the areas where it is concentrated. Finally the economic consequences, not only the direct impact on city budgets, but the indirect effects on health care systems, law enforcement efforts and tax bases, are usually targeted for improvement.

But one of the biggest problems with homelessness is merely getting a handle on the numbers. In order to know whether any project has been successful, there needs to be a metric to measure that success. While it might be easy to determine the current city budget for dealing with homeless issues, other factors are far more difficult to quantify.

By definition, it is impossible to find the homeless at any given address because they move from shelter to shelter; find and lose housing; migrate from place to place. The yearly cost to hospitals and health care clinics, the reduction in property values, the necessary personal needed in ambulance and security services to handle the load are almost impossible to determine.

An additional issue is that homelessness, while extremely personal at one level, is not merely a local issue. Rousting the homeless from the local park does not automatically place those individuals in housing and gainful employment; they have simply moved to the next city or county where the current measures are less restrictive.

It was against this background that the Colorado Interagency Council on Homelessness (CICH) decided to try a more comprehensive approach at finding out how many homeless there are, who these people are and how they might be helped. In order to avoid inaccuracies involved in earlier studies, this survey was carried out state wide with the support of numerous agencies and volunteers. Surveys have a tendency to undercount the homeless because many people without a permanent place of residence are either staying with relatives or “couch-surfing” with friends. But in order to reduce double counting and increase accuracy, the Colorado survey was carried out in a single 24-hour period.

The results were revealing.

On August 28, 2006 an estimated 16,203 people were homeless in the state of Colorado; this against an estimated 2005 population of over 4.6 million. The number of homeless includes families, women in domestic violence shelters and estimates of unsheltered homeless. A disproportionally high percentage of these people were minorities.

Children and teens make up approximately one-third of Colorado homeless with six in ten homeless a member of a family with children. In addition, one quarter of the unsheltered homeless are families with children and most newly homeless are women with children.

Half of the all respondents to the survey had one or more of the following disabilities: serious mental illness, serious medical or physical condition, alcohol or drug abuse, developmental disability, or HIV/AIDS. Nevertheless of the reasons given for homelessness, housing related costs, loss of job and at least one serious disabling condition were mentioned.

Almost two-thirds of the homeless mentioned that either they or another family member needed a service they could not obtain – it is perhaps obvious that the most commonly mentioned was permanent housing.

Of the over sixteen thousand homeless, one in ten were chronically homeless with the majority being male. Men and households without children were more likely to have experienced several episodes of homelessness in the last three years.

This type of survey is only one step towards rationally approaching a solution to homelessness. As opposed to “solving the problem” by legislating the homeless to hunger like the Las Vegas mayor attempted or a radical cleansing of Skid Row like Los Angeles is staging, knowing where the problems are and finding long term appropriate solutions, while not fast and perhaps not achievable during a four year political term, is the only way to reduce suffering at the lowest level of our society.

Colorado has taken a first step in trying to fix the problem. One can only hope that the current efforts are not undercut when the problem becomes less visible and thus funding to support systems slashed from the budget.

It would be interesting to compare these numbers with a survey taken in January, a month without jobs in construction and farming. A month forcing people out of cars and vans and into shelters. But maybe next time.

But solving these problems is an important way to ease suffering in America today. And at less then one-half of a percent of the total population of Colorado is it too much to ask that this suffering be relieved.

A level of suffering that until recently, wasn’t even appropriately counted.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] Anonymous has a great post up (fixed link) about a major, yet often ignored problem: homelessness. It’s a very interesting […]


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