Counting the homeless is challenging, especially in Minnesota

The official homeless assessment prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Congress released late last month estimates there were 8,214 homeless Minnesotans on a particular night last January. (MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley)

Numbers of homeless veterans and chronically unsheltered people in Minnesota are down, though the numbers of homeless families has increased, according to a nationwide annual count by the federal government.

Local researchers and advocates for the homeless can agree with those trends.

It’s the estimated tally of Minnesotans without a permanent place to lay their heads they take issue with.

The official homeless assessment prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Congress released late last month estimates there were 8,214 homeless Minnesotans on a particular night last January.

Housing and Urban Development estimated that there were over 8,000 homeless Minnesotans in January 2013. (Graphic courtesy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

Compare that to an October 2012 survey overseen by Wilder Research in October 2014. That effort, also done on one particular day, tallied 10,214 homeless.

Community Sketchbook, reported and written by Cynthia Boyd, focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them. It is made possible by sponsorship support from The Minneapolis Foundation. Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundation.

So did the numbers of homeless drop 2,000 people in the course of about three months?

“Absolutely not,” said Cathy ten Broeke, state director to prevent and end homelessness.

The difference, she says, is in the details and the methodology, in other words the more comprehensive nature of the Wilder effort, as well as the fact in some cases it’s hard to find the homeless in Minnesota winter, especially in rural areas. Sometimes the homeless sleep in ice houses, ten Broeke said.

Maybe, say some advocates for the homeless, hospitable Minnesotans are more likely to allow a homeless guest to sleep on the couch through sub-zero January days and nights, rather than in public places when federal counters do their tally.

In fact it is generally acknowledged that homelessness is difficult for “researchers to quantify and journalists to cover,” in part because of its “often invisible nature,” according to “Journalist’s Resource,” a blog of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy out of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Better measure

The Wilder survey is widely respected and ten Broeke said state officials have regularly suggested to federal officials it is the better measure of state homelessness.

Hundreds of community volunteers scour wide for homeless people staying in emergency shelters, living in transitional housing, stopping at drop-in service locations and free food lines, as well as the unsheltered sleeping at campgrounds, cars, in abandoned buildings and under bridges.

The drawback is it is done only every three years.

“The October numbers are more solid than the January numbers. They are more scientifically rigorous, more credible,” explains Craig Helmstetter, who manages the branch of Wilder that collects homeless data for HUD.

HUD’s count is “a good effort” but is not as highly organized or resourced as the Wilder survey is, said Helmstetter. The Wilder effort includes one-on-one interviews with homeless persons, which allows researchers to describe who they are, not only by age, but also by many other factors, including education, race, and long-term health and trauma issues.

The HUD count takes “the pulse of homelessness,” but doesn’t look at the nuances, says Michelle Gerrard, co-director of the Wilder homeless study.

Still, the HUD study is an annual tally and valuable for that, says Kenza Hadj-Moussa, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s really nice to have the HUD baselines,” she said.

The HUD numbers paint “a broad picture,” she said, whereas Wilder research takes a richer, deeper look and factors in the “invisible homeless” with educated estimates of the un-counted homeless.

Hadj-Moussa attributes family homelessness to a lack of affordable housing and stagnant wages, noting that her coalition will urge legislators again this session to build more affordable housing, preserve the existing stock and support a minimum-wage increase.

Ten Broeke says state officials are talking with federal officials about ways to improve the quality of all data around homelessness.

Largest changes in homeless people in families

(U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

As for the rest of the nation, New York City and Los Angeles alone account for one in five of the homeless, according to HUD. The nationwide tally is 610,042, which makes up more than 6 percent of the total population but the numbers are down 4 percent overall since 2012.

The national report points to a significant 7 percent decline in the numbers of chronically homeless persons – suggesting they are now housed — but also reflects significant regional variation: “20 states experienced increases in homelessness between 2012 and 2013.”

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    Cynthia Boyd's picture
    Cynthia Boyd

    Cynthia Boyd writes Community Sketchbook for MinnPost.