Down for the Undercount: Baltimore’s homeless count is a fluke this year

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 2, 2013

Given the long-struggling state of the economy and the society’s shrinking social safety net, the suggestion that Baltimore City’s homeless population is in rapid decline may seem like a pipe dream. But here are the latest figures, according to Baltimore City’s recently released report on its biennial homeless count, conducted on Jan. 27: 35 percent fewer people were sleeping in homeless shelters or outdoors this year than in 2011. The tally’s steep drop is in stark contrast to the 2011 count, which found a 20 percent rise—and 50 percent increase in homeless youth—over 2009.

In reality, though, the report—which was released quietly, posted on a city website without announcement or press release—undercuts its own numbers by asserting that the extent of homelessness in Baltimore has likely remained static in recent years.

The report, entitled the “2013 Homeless Point in Time Count Report” and released by the Homeless Services Program of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, explains that an effort this year to account for inaccuracies in prior tallies due to inconsistent methodologies “suggests that the total count of homeless persons in Baltimore did not undergo large changes during the period from 2007 to 2013.”

Thus, though “there were 2,638 homeless persons identified during the count, a 35 [percent] decrease from 2011,” when 4,088 homeless people were counted, the number “does not precisely reflect the actual number of homeless persons in the City” because the “methodology [used] in Baltimore is imperfect and has varied across the years,” the report states.

As Health Care for the Homeless’ executive director Kevin Lindamood quips, “rumors of the demise of homelessness have been greatly exaggerated,” adding that the report was released to the public “very silently.”

Lindamood says “the city this year is pressing the reset button” on how it conducts its point-in-time (PIT) homeless count, and “I applaud the direction,” with “its intent to improve the methodology.” He worries, though, that “some people use the number from the PIT count as the data point measuring homelessness,” even though “it is an incomplete measure if we are going to look at the broader issues of homelessness.”

In September, for instance, USA Today ran a story under the headline, “Homeless population dips,” reporting on numbers released by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which uses federally required PIT counts from around the country to track trends in the nation’s homeless population—and found it has dropped 17 percent since 2005.

Lindamood, though, says his experience working with Baltimore’s homeless population belies the downward trend, because he has watched the demographics of his group’s clientele change over the last 20 years in ways that suggest more people, not less, are without a stable place to live.

“Twenty years ago,” Lindamood says, “85 percent of our clients were single adult men between the ages of 25 and 44. This year, 35 percent were women, and in the past five or six years, we’ve been seeing more intact families and children. As safety nets have been eroding, we start to see other populations—children and families and even seniors—who we used to be able to find housing for but now are on the streets in greater numbers.”

Homeless advocates say counting homeless young people is a particularly challenging task, and in prior years the city’s PIT-count report was accompanied by a parallel study conducted by the Center for Adolescent Health (CAH) at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Rather than seeking to count homeless youth on a single night, the center worked with service providers over a period of weeks to try to gain a firmer grasp of the population—and its data showed this population had increased 135 percent between 2007 and 2011. No such study was conducted this year, though, according to the center’s lead investigator for its 2011 study, Nan Astone, who left for another job in May—after the parallel study would have been done.

This year’s PIT count does, however, try to account for homeless people under 25 years old. It identified “2,030 who self-reported (or whose parents self-reported) to a service provider or to the school system that they were homeless or unstably housed during or at some point prior to the PIT Count,” the report states. However, most of them were not included in the official tally because of incomplete records about their housing status. In the end, the count included 555 young people, 431 of them under 18 years old, and six of those unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. They comprised 20 percent of all the homeless people counted.

Astone, in an email to City Paper, was astounded that only six unaccompanied homeless children were counted, asking, “Are they kidding?” In 2011, the CAH study found more than 200 unaccompanied homeless youth under the age of 18, almost a third of the 640 young people it found between 13 and 25 were homeless in Baltimore.

Lara Law, program director for Youth Empowered Society, a safe haven in Charles Village for homeless youngsters that opened in 2012 and, according to Law, has since served 140 people who are 25 or younger, calls the report “a dismal undercount of homeless adolescents and young adults,” who number “in the hundreds, if not thousands” at “any given time in Baltimore.”

A telltale gauge of how undercounted children were in this year’s homeless tally is the number of students enrolled in Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) that the system identified as homeless: 2,716 in the 2012-2013 school year, according to its official enrollment data. That’s 78 more homeless people than the PIT count found in the entire city this year. The discrepancy arises due to differences in how homelessness is defined. The PIT count’s definition of homelessness—those sleeping in shelters or outside—is more restrictive than the school system’s definition, which includes all students who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate night-time place of residence,” according the BCPS website.

Despite advocates’ concerns about undercounting, the report says “the 2013 PIT Count is the most comprehensive to date,” is “more useful for planning and policy decisions” than past efforts, and has helped identify “the most vulnerable homeless individuals and families in the City in order to connect them with housing and supportive services.” In the future, the report states, the city’s PIT counts will seek to maintain “consistency in the counting methodology” while improving “the thoroughness and accuracy of the count.”

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