Who counts as ‘homeless’ depends on how you ask – by Joanna S. Kao  , E. Tammy Kim , Haya El Nasser  January 31, 2015 5:00AM ET


LOS ANGELES — About two dozen volunteers gathered in a room Wednesday night for their instructions: Don’t shine flashlights at people. Don’t talk to them. Use your judgment when you see a recreational vehicle or makeshift tent. Do not get out of the car alone.

 Clyde Heimer (left) and his friend Bill (who did not give his last name), volunteered in the Los Angeles homeless count Wednesday night. They themselves are homeless and said the tally underestimates the number of people living on the streets.Haya El Nasser / Al Jazeera America


Clyde Heimer (left) and his friend Bill (who did not give his last name), volunteered in the Los Angeles homeless count Wednesday night. They themselves are homeless and said the tally underestimates the number of people living on the streets.Haya El Nasser / Al Jazeera America

It was day two of a three-day homeless count in Los Angeles, the U.S. city with the largest population living on the streets. About 6,000 people had signed up to help. Each was required to attend a 30-minute training session, then paired with another volunteer and provided a map, tally sheet and flashlight.

Leah Hubbard, a graduate student, canvassed a 0.89-square-mile area of the city’s Westchester neighborhood. “Most people think homelessness is confined to Skid Row,” she said. But on the count, she and her teammate looked for homeless people along far less infamous areas.

Counters in some 3,000 cities and counties across the country helped quantify the nation’s homeless population this month. It’s a massive ritual overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

Yet critics warn against relying solely on this “point-in-time” method and its underlying definition of homelessness. Last January, HUD counted 578,424 people on the streets and in shelters in the U.S., down 11 percent from 2007 — while the Department of Education, or DOE, which uses a different, more expansive methodology, reported that child and family homelessness doubled over the last decade.

Advocates concerned about this discrepancy are pushing for a legislative fix. On Wednesday, a bipartisan bill meant to enlarge HUD’s concept of homelessness was introduced, for the second consecutive year, in both houses of Congress. The Homeless Children and Youth Act, or HCYA, would force HUD to align its definition with those used by federal programs for low-income families and vulnerable minors and reduce the requirements for proving homeless status, backers say. Esoteric perhaps and, in the context of a new legislature, an unlikely priority. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has stuck by HUD’s current definition and emphasized services for adults. The president’s Opening Doors plan promises to eliminate veterans’ homelessnessby the end of December, chronic homelessness by 2016, and homelessness among children, families and youth by 2020.

This timetable puts a focus on adult homelessness, said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and an architect of the HCYA. “HUD has essentially forced communities to prioritize adults over kids.”

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11 myths about homelessness in America – Updated by German Lopez on January 15, 2015, 1:20 p.m. ET


A homeless person.- Oli Scarff / Getty Images News

Myth #1: Homeless people are lazy and don’t want to work. About 44 percent of homeless people around the country did some paid work during the previous month, according to a comprehensive 1996 Urban Institute survey. A 2013 US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study found 17 percent of homeless adults in families, who share different characteristics than homeless individuals, had paying jobs, and 55 percent had worked during the previous year.

Myth #2: Getting a job will keep someone out of homelessness. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours a week, depending on the state, to pay for an “affordable” two-bedroom rental unit (the federal government defines affordable as 30 percent of a person’s income). A full-time minimum wage worker couldn’t afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a standard set by the federal government, in any state.

Myth #3: Homelessness is long-term problem. The most common duration of homelessness is one or two days, according to University of Pennsylvania researcher Dennis Culhane. Nearly one in six homeless people were classified as chronically homeless — people with disabilities who have been homeless for a year or more, or experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in three years — by HUD’s 2014 survey.