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What’s Your Point?

homelessBright and early last Saturday morning, about 700 volunteers came out in force for the annual “Point-in-Time” count of Orange County homeless. The exercise is alternated yearly with a count of homeless using the county’s emergency shelters and transitional housing, and is required by HUD in order to receive grant money for aiding the homeless and -hopefully- reducing their ranks.

The Voice of OC ran an article on the count titling it, “What is the Point of the ‘Point-in-Time’ Homeless Count?“. Lamenting the inherent flaws in the system, the article asked, basically, what was the point of making an attempt to count a transient and mostly secretive population. A chief complaint is that the time allowed for the count, four hours this year, is not enough to get an accurate account of the homeless picture. The article also bring up issues of the volunteers approach and methodology, saying it would be impossible to cover the entire county with any accuracy.

The count, which has been conducted every year since 2005, is required to obtain 16 million dollars in Federal funding to reduce homelessness. HUD does not appear to require a threshold number for disseminating funds so total accuracy may be a moot point from the funding perspective. Still, according to the VOC article, the numbers are disputed by homeless advocates, including Dwight Smith of Catholic Worker who is a vocal critic of how the county handles the homeless.

“Bullshit,” was how Dwight Smith, director of Isaiah House, the Catholic Worker shelter in Santa Ana, characterized that count.

However, Smith and others do credit county officials for doing a better job of training volunteers and making other improvements from the early years, when, as Leon describes, “they would just ask a college student to take an area and start counting.”

But the advocates said the count can only improve so much as long as it is done over such a short window of time. To illustrate the inherent flaws in the count, Leon recalled how when he was a public health nurse he witnessed the number of homeless people in Anaheim’s La Palma Park change drastically from one week to the next.

“I might visit one day and there would be 50 people in the park, but go back the next week there would be zero,” he said.

But, I have to wonder if lengthening the timeframe would result in any more accurate count? Although Smith believes the count should last as long as two months, how would that increase accuracy? In order for it to be more accurate, one would have to find some way of tracking individuals and families so they are not counted multiple times. My experience interacting with the homeless demonstrates most are suspicious of anyone exuding authority. Certainly a stranger approaching and asking questions, as the volunteers are required to do, would elicit less than an enthusiastic response from the population they are attempting to interact with. Asking more in-depth questions that would  identify specific individuals, particularly from the mentally ill, would not go over and could produce unexpected results.

During the 2011 count, a total of 6,939 homeless people were counted/estimated in Orange County. The reduction from 2009 estimates was attributed by some to Federal Stimulus dollars and, by others, as poor counting. Still, the county defends its method of counting the homeless as the best available. They also claim it is a learn-as-you-go effort that gets better each year. Smith, who is probably one of the most knowledgeable in the county on the plight of the homeless, agrees. Still, he says, more could be done.

So, this year, the county will make its count using volunteers from all walks of life. Gone are the days when a handful of college students were tasked with the count. Saturday’s effort began a few months ago with the county reaching out to schools and even it’s own employees asking for volunteers. The response was good with many returnees helping out. And as I said, since numbers are not critical, it is the count itself that matters. And, perhaps, that is the point.

The numbers and graphs can be confusing. However, if you would like to see where your tax dollar is going, you can pull reports for California and Orange County specifically from the HUD page found here.