Controlling the Count

In addition to his Global War on Terror, George W. Bush also started an initiative to end homelessness. According to his own 2004 “Record of Achievement” (after that they apparently stopped recording and perhaps started shredding):

  • In 2003, the Bush Administration announced the largest amount of homeless assistance in history, $1.27 billion to fund 3,700 local housing and service programs around the country.
  • President Bush has proposed the Samaritan Initiative, a new $70 million program to provide supportive services and housing for chronically homeless individuals.
  • The Interagency Council on Homelessness has been revitalized, bringing together 20 Federal agencies to coordinate efforts to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

Now, this is all fine and good. I am a big supporter of Housing First initiatives (placing the “chronically homeless” in permanent housing) because I really think they help the overall homeless situation. But, there are a couple problems with these kinds of large, centralized programs. The first is that the larger number of “temporary homeless” seem to be lost in the rush to fund housing first projects and second, the number of homeless becomes an important political signpost showing how well a local government is doing.

I don’t have much to say about the first point. I would prefer to point to the excellent article by Violet Law (what a great name!) at the National Housing Institute. Her piece looks at the trade offs between focusing primarily on housing first and taking a slightly more balanced approach.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a “chronically homeless person” is an individual who has been without a home for at least one year and is diagnosed with mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. Housing First focuses on serving this segment of the homeless population.

While the cities that have adopted Housing First have reported a reduction in their chronic homeless population by the hundreds or even thousands in the last decade, homeless advocates are increasingly alarmed that this solution, executed with little increase in federal funding, is threatening to short-change other homeless populations, such as families with children and teenagers who have aged out of foster care, in favor of one narrowly defined group. “We wish [the Bush administration] had picked up the whole agenda of ending homelessness for all,” says Nan Roman, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).
[…]
While the benefits of permanent housing programs are manifest, some advocates for the homeless are increasingly speaking out against the Bush administration’s position that Housing First is the panacea for ending homelessness-especially now that ICH and the administration are seeking to reauthorize the McKinney-Vento Act, which was, in 1986, the first piece of federal legislation to address homelessness. The administration’s draft version of the reauthorized legislation calls for making permanent the Samaritan bonus-the current incentive to provide permanent housing for the chronically homeless. Those who oppose this incentive charge that the singular focus on the chronically homeless population is at best a misguided effort to solve the complexities of homelessness by defining it too narrowly and simplistically. Some opponents of the administration’s proposed reauthorization bill, mostly from the National Coalition to End Homelessness, support competing legislation introduced in Congress in February, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which they say would allocate homeless assistance funding in a more balanced manner.

Now. I am not exactly a homelessness activist, I do try to keep my self informed. I am also a self-admitted statistics geek. Therefore imagine my surprise when Carl Bialik, the WSJ’s Numbers Guy, combined both in a post discussing the brouhaha in New York City over this years homelessness count. NYC pegged the number of homeless at 3,755 dropping from 3,843 in 2006 and 4,395 in 2005. So, things appear to be looking up.

Not so fast Bat Man! Apparently one of the researchers involved in the count resigned because he felt they were undercounting.

Once each winter, the New York City government sends thousands of volunteers into the streets and subways to count the number of people who are homeless. The goal is to get a sense of how well the city is doing at alleviating the most severe kind of homelessness, which could be deadly on a frigid night.

This year, the January count produced an estimate of 3,755 unsheltered homeless people. (The city’s Department of Homeless Services trumpeted the findings in a press release, reporting the count was down 15% from two years earlier.)

But Julien Teitler, an associate professor of social work and sociology at Columbia University who was hired by the city to assist in its count, disputed the city’s total. Prof. Teitler recently told the New York Times that city officials were “arbitrarily adjusting” figures in a way that would produce a lower count.

Bialik based his report partially on the information from a New York Times article highlighting the problems with the study. The dispute is over the method involving decoys to test whether volunteers are correctly counting; a quality control check if you will.

Under Dr. Hopper’s direction, Columbia recruited dozens of “decoys” to go to the same areas and stations as the volunteers. The decoys posed as homeless people.

The volunteers were instructed to ask people who were lingering on the street, in parks or in the subways or if they had a place to spend the night — unless the people were asleep, in which case they were not to be disturbed.

Decoys, if questioned by the volunteers, were instructed to identify themselves and to give the volunteers stickers to record their locations. Otherwise, the decoys were instructed merely to keep track of whether they saw the volunteers pass by.

By keeping track of the number of decoys in a given area and comparing that to the number of decoys actually found, one can estimate how many homeless were missed in a given area. The problem stems from how one actually counts the decoys.

Unless some stupid statistics professor shows up and claims that you need to adjust the numbers up. Dr. Teitler has discontinued his involvement over the process because he feels the decoys aren’t being used correctly. His method would increase the current value to 4,039 homeless.

So this is just about 250 people right? Not exactly.

For me the real meat of the NYT article wasn’t about the statistics, but the politics.

New York City is three years into a five-year “action plan” announced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to end chronic homelessness and reduce the street population by two-thirds, all by April 2009. The results so far are mixed. The number of homeless adults in city shelters has fallen noticeably since 2004, but the number of homeless families is at a record high.

So it came as welcome news on May 2 when the city announced that the third annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate had shown a slight decrease in unsheltered homeless people.
[…]
The city’s Department of Homeless Services said the estimate “shows the city is on track” to meeting the goal of reducing unsheltered homelessness by two-thirds.

Oh! So if you are on track and you are managing the Department of Homeless Services you are doing a good job. You might even get a promotion some day. No reason to want lower number right?So there is no reason to worry. The government has everything under control.

Well. Everything but the numbers.

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