The counting process also is less precise than might be implied by the resulting federal report that put the number of homeless Americans at exactly 567,715. Cities generally rely on volunteers, and larger cities often sample rather than attempt a comprehensive count. New York, for example, divides the city into 7,000 zones, and then actually tries to count the number of homeless people in 1,500 of those zones. Advocacy groups have highlighted long lists of blind spots, including people who are in hospitals on the night of the count and therefore not tallied.
In recent years, New York has paid people to pretend to be homeless, to check the accuracy of its survey teams. There’s good reason to worry: A 2008 study that tested the technique found that the counters missed 29 percent of the “homeless” actors. But most cities don’t impose similar quality controls and submit what amounts to an estimate.
It’s not uncommon — and, under the circumstances, hardly surprising — for jurisdictions to report annual swings of as much as 50 percent in the number of people reportedly living without shelter. These swings are almost certainly incorrect.
The government knows all this. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office in July 2020 concluded the counts “did not provide a reliably precise estimate of the homeless population.”
The reliance on bad data makes it harder to justify necessary funding to help the homeless and allocate it correctly. Inaccurate counts also mean that communities are simply aiming at the wrong targets. The Obama and Trump administrations pushed to eliminate chronic homelessness among veterans; many cities met the specified goals only to find that they hadn’t solved the problem, because of chronic undercounting.
The approach of tracking homeless people by name is backed by Community Solutions, a New York nonprofit that has persuaded 83 communities across the country to use its software and to accept its assistance, including Washington, Jacksonville, Fla., and Riverside County, Calif. Many of those communities are focused for now on their populations of homeless veterans, but the same methods serve for other populations, too.
Community Solutions also offers a useful definition of what it means to eliminate homelessness. It aims to reduce homelessness to “functional zero,” meaning that the number of people experiencing homelessness is smaller than the number that are successfully placed in housing in the average month.