Saturday, October 31, 2009

Homeless metrics

While everyone rather-intimately involved with Homeless World Sacramento is joyful that many shelter beds for the chilly season will be there to boost the count of beds to keep more people safe and warm and dry, it is a curious calculus how the number of beds came together.

Counting homeless people and knowing who needs what is an odd business. Homeless people are, basically, shooed away, pushed aside, outside the public's averted gaze, ignored. Those who are sleeping rough are hard to count, except by rough methods at the frayed edge of statistical validity.

How many of us are there?

If 419 beds are added to the supply of shelter beds in November, will they all be used? Will demand consistently be close to supply? Or will demand overwhelm supply? Or vice versa?

In years past 150 beds were added to the normal count of beds for the chilly months, which run roughly from mid-November till the end of March. Last winter (running through spring and into summer), so-called Overflow beds were provided through the end of June with the number of beds increased to 200 on April 6. The fifty extra extra-beds were there to sop up demand after Tent City [better known as Wasteland in Homeless World] was rousted and the SMUD property it was on was fenced off.

The need for shelter beds in Homeless World Sacramento is subject to constant fluctuations due to many factors, central of which are these:
  • The number of people in Sacramento who would have to sleep rough* were there no shelters in Sacramento. This does not include the number of homeless people who chose to camp or sleep rough in all conditions and refuse to go to shelters, for various reasons.
  • The weather. Cold and rain increase the number of homeless seeking shelter as do weather reports predicting cold or rain. The severity of conditions or predicted forthcoming conditions increase the numbers of those desiring to be inside rather than out.
  • The time of the month. Many homeless people have disablity or other checks that come early in the month. As a result, many homeless people take a room at a motel or intentionally stay out of a shelter to utilize their substance of choice. Other homeless people with disablity or pension checks near immediate head out to Reno or an Indian casino to gamble.  By about mid-month, homeless people will have used up their monthly stipends and will have returned to any shelter they were using.
  • The time of the year.  The chilly months are not just those with bad weather.  They are those with lots of dark.  It's less safe outside from mid-autumn til mid-spring. 
Recent roustings of rough sleepers and encampments have put matters in disarray.

Val Jon Farris of iCare-America recently put out a general letter – "a humble plea" –  telling us "City forces are driving the homeless deeper into the woods, places where they’re less visible, thus creating an illusion that the [so-called problem of homelessness] is lessening, when in fact, the numbers of homeless are increasing. My [homeless] leader friends tell me that every day at least ten to fifteen “new” homeless folks join the community of over 1,500 just in the metropolitan Sac area."

My experience, from being 86ed from the mission for two weeks and thus sleeping downtown in a law-firm's parking lot, tells me that homeless people are curiously absent in some number from the downtown area. It is perhaps the case that our perceptions of homeless population changes come just from movement where people are needing to, or choosing to, sleep.  The diaspora of the homeless, wearing out shoe leather as we visibly trek the streets and woods, is mistaken for population growth.

Too, this could all be like the Jain story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.  Six blind men touching different parts of an elephant come to differing conclusions of what an elephant must be like.  The trunk is like a snake; the side is like a wall; the tusk is like a spear.  Knowing just a bit of what is going on isn't enough to inform you about the whole of it.

Only, a comprehensive count of some sort that endevours to know the whole of what is going on in Sacramento can hope to get a snapshot of homelessness here.  "Street Count" is done each year in January in Sacramento county, and must be our best guide.  But Street Count uses sampling techniques to do its job on the cheap, and then fills in holes, as it can.  It's NOT an effort at getting an accurate count; it's just an effort to get the best count possible.

Wee days ago, the Los Angeles Times announced the count of homeless in Los Angeles county, reporting the population dropped a whopping 38% in two-years time.  How can that be in the severe recession we're in!?  And the most curious thing of all is that the count was taken last January, yet it's taken a full nine months for information from the count to become public. [Sacramento county's Street Count was also taken at the end of January.  I was whining about not having the numbers in the middle of last April since data was "due" six weeks after the count was taken.]

Once we have these numbers there comes this immediate need to justify them, to explain them.  We accept the numbers as true -- despite that we are given no stats on how valid they might be.  The data report ought to say, something like, the total homeless we extrapolated to in our count, give or take 300, has a 90% chance of being correct.  Right?  Ain't that how statistics works?  Anybody reading this take Statistics 101 in Junior College?  Shouldn't there be a standard deviation? the roominess for the numbers to wiggle in? But no.  The number comes down like they were directly handed to Moses.

The "feel" on the river is that homeless numbers in Sacramento are up up up.  The economy is bad.  The economy is bad.  Then, when we hear that the economy is improving, we hear that unemployment is a lagging indicator and that must mean, simply must mean, that gloom and doom is ripe, that homelessness must be up up up.  So an urgency for shelter space is justified.  We need 400+ shelter slots this winter up from less than half that last winter.  The end is near.  The clouds roll back like a scroll.  The scroll reads, "your number's up."
* sleep rough: to spend the night in the open; be without a home or without shelter [per Collins English Dictionary]

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