(Photo via twitter.com/PHLCityHomeless)
The number of homeless children and families are systemically undercounted in Philadelphia.
On the night of Jan. 23, hundreds of Philadelphians canvassed the city counting homeless people. The annual effort, known as the point-in-time count, attempts to quantify homelessness throughout the country. Mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) since 2005, its flawed methodology has not changed since its inception.
It relies on volunteers to canvas geographic areas in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter. It does not count families living in substandard housing. It does not count families living with others, often in unsafe situations, due to severe economic hardship. It does not count children displaced and temporarily staying with relatives or friends because their parent or parents are in shelter. It does not count families sleeping in their car or in abandoned buildings.
[Editor’s note: Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services Director Liz Hersh acknowledged this limitation in a Jan. 23 press release announcing the annual count. “We recognize that many people who are living doubled up or in extremely unstable situations need help,” she said, “and we welcome a serious conversation about what the reality is facing millions of Americans — and thousands of Philadelphians. Tonight, we are focusing on one component of America’s homelessness and affordable housing crisis.”]
Emblematic of the issue are Bruce and Jen, who were living on limited income raising their three children. When Bruce was injured at his job, they were unable to pay rent from Jen’s income alone and lost their housing. While bouncing around between relatives and friends’ homes, they applied to shelter on two occasions, but both times the shelter system was full and were denied entry. They stayed in the homeless shelter of Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (PIHN), a faith-based nonprofit serving families experiencing homelessness.
After three years of couch surfing and close to one year in PIHN’s shelter, they moved into their own rental unit with PIHN’s assistance.
“We were homeless for four years, but had hope for only the last one of those years,” Jen said. “We lived a three-year nightmare.”
Their “uncounted” homelessness left a damaging and traumatic mark on the family as their children were repeatedly displaced from their school, and Bruce fell into a deep depression and developed chronic medical issues. Throughout their first three years of homelessness, Bruce, Jen and their four children were never tallied in the point-in-time counts.
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They are not alone.
Statistics of the number of families experiencing homelessness vary widely. For example, Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services and the School District of Philadelphia paint an entirely different picture of the number of school-age homeless children and youth.
The HUD-funded homeless service system in Philadelphia counted 2,749 children and youth in Fiscal Year 2018. At the same time, the School District of Philadelphia counted 7,228 students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. That is an astounding 260 percent higher rate of homelessness than the Office of Homeless Services shows.
What is happening to the 4,479 children who are not being counted? We do know that third graders experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia score only half as well as their peers on testing, suggesting future costs in remedial education, greater truancy and dropout rates. These are boys and girls, living in our city, without the security of knowing where they’ll sleep tonight.
Why does this matter?
HUD, the federal agency responsible for dispersing hundreds of millions of dollars across the country for homeless services, use the point-in-time count to determine funding allocations. Undercounting family homeless is analogous to undercounting of the general population in the census. Millions of dollars in federal funding are left on the table and families like Bruce and Jen are routinely invisible to the system that is designed to assist them. Unless a family is officially counted as homeless, they are not eligible for an array of housing-based services which helps hundreds of homeless Philadelphians into permanent housing each year.
Federal officials, as well as some researchers, argue the definition of homelessness should be narrowly defined. Currently, it is defined as living in a place not meant for human habitation or in a publicly funded shelter. Why should a family have to be admitted to a homeless shelter to be counted as homeless? Additionally, the shelter system operates at capacity, routinely turning away families from shelter, as Bruce and Jen experienced.
The city has the capacity to aggregate data across agencies to accurately uncover the number of homeless families and their children. It must now have the will to do so. Properly counting incidence of homelessness for families is an important step to adequately addressing and ultimately solving the issue.
- Family Services Provider Network
- Daniel Farrell, HELP USA
- Rachel Falkove, Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network
- Joe Willard, People’s Emergency Center
A spokesperson for the Office of Homeless Services shared a clarification after this guest post published:
“While the Point-in-Time Count is an important measure required by HUD for its nationwide data collection and grant requirements, it’s one of about a dozen performance metrics we submit throughout the year. For example, other metrics include the extent to which people exit homelessness to permanent housing or the change in employment income for adults leaving the system. In other words, the PIT Count is not the single decisive factor for federal funding.
“The PIT Count also doesn’t factor in the many people we serve through homelessness prevention programs, like rent assistance or mediation programs or helping people find alternatives to shelter that are just as safe for them. In fact, over the past three years, we’ve more than tripled our prevention budget. It’s also important to note that we do collect additional data for local use during the Youth Count, including estimates on people under 24 who are homeless on the street as well as living doubled up or on couches.”
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