Homelessness in Shelby County has declined 27.6% since 2012 largely due to successful placement in permanent housing, says the nonprofit that coordinates the annual count, but critics attribute the decrease to an ineffective federally mandated counting method.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said D. Cheré Bradshaw, executive director of the Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH). “There’s still a lot of work left, but we’re encouraged by these numbers dropping,”

Paul Garner, a local activist and former organizing director of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, is skeptical: “I’ve never bought the decline in numbers,” Garner said. “Just look around and you see new faces on the street all the time.”

The local Point-in-Time (PIT) annual count, coordinated by CAFTH, was held Jan. 22 and includes people who are sheltered in transitional homes as well as those without shelter. The sheltered count is mandated yearly in late January, and the unsheltered count every other year by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) so communities may receive federal Continuum of Care Program (CoC) funding under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Memphis, along with many other cities, conducts both the unsheltered and sheltered count every year. But quantifying and qualifying people who experience homelessness is complicated with differences in the definition even among federal agencies. Missing in the PIT count are those “couch-surfing” or staying temporarily with friends or family or in motels or hotels, while the Department of Education counts students as homeless living in those circumstances.

CAFTH Point-in-Time 2019 Review shows homelessness trending down.

In a summary of the 2019 count, CAFTH said the number of sheltered homeless in the county dropped 27.6% between 2012 and 2019, from 1,750 to 1,267. The organization reported an even more dramatic decrease in unsheltered or “street” homeless — 82.2% — between 2012 and 2019, from 326 to just 58. The number of unsheltered homeless plummeted 42.1 percent in just one year (102 to 58) between 2018 and 2019, CAFTH reported, though it noted the 2019 count may have been affected by heavy rain.

Bradshaw attributes this sharp decline to an improved “housing first” process of getting the county’s homeless into permanent housing using its stock of nearly 900 leased units and $6.9 million in funding to help keep people in housing with accompanied social services. The nonprofit organization works with property owners to temporarily sublease units to participants.

“They need the house first, and then add the services,” Bradshaw said. “That’s really what’s made the difference. Even though it’s permanent housing, people don’t stay there forever. They get better. And they move on to more integrated housing. They get income. So, we are constantly moving people as they come in.”

“That’s not a scientific way to count anything”

However, some local religious and community leaders who work with the homeless dispute both the effectiveness and methodology of the PIT Count in reflecting the enormity of homelessness in Shelby County.

Garner minced no words expressing his skepticism: “The success of the PIT count is completely dependent on the CAFTH’s ability to recruit and effectively mobilize volunteers on the coldest day of the year and dependent on their ability to get individuals to willingly volunteer information.”

“That’s not a scientific way to count anything, let alone people who often do not want to be found, often for reasons of their own personal safety.”

When asked about her impression of reported declining homeless numbers, the Rev. Edith Love, a Unitarian Universalist minister and founder of Resistance: Street Church, said, “I have not seen any numbers falling and have assisted in the Point-in-Time Count.”

Making the homeless count actually add up

CAFTH, formed in 2010 after Partners for the Homeless and the Greater Memphis Inter-Agency Coalition for the Homeless merged, provides planning, technical assistance and service coordination to a range of public and private agencies that work to end homelessness in Memphis and Shelby County. Advocates and volunteers use information from local police and the general public to locate unsheltered homeless encampments to identify places volunteers should go.

Each year, CAFTH trains an army of volunteers not only to count the homeless they encounter but also have them answer a short survey. Unsheltered people also received a care package from the estimated 100 volunteers, with items to help keep them warm and nourished over the cold winter months.

Each interaction during the count is categorized by household type and size, gender, race and ethnicity to represent a snapshot of America’s homeless population. A report on this year’s count is expected to be available in a couple of months, Bradshaw said.

Nationally, 568,000 people were homeless in 2019, a 2.7% increase over 2018 but a nearly 11% decline since 2010, according to HUD’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. African Americans accounted for 40% of the homeless in the U.S. in 2019, though they make up only 13% of the population. In comparison, CAFTH estimated 78% of the homeless in Shelby County are African American, though they are 54% of the population.

Elaine de Coligny and other advocates contend the PIT Count represents about one-third of the actual number of homeless in a given area.

Critics said another concern is HUD offers incentives to show success through reduced numbers.

“It’s such a political issue that different places may want to use the count to show that they’re making progress, even if it’s not the case,” said Kelley Cutler a community organizer with the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness.

Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOneHome, which works to end homelessness in Alameda County, California, said, “They also award bonus money based on progress.”

She and other advocates contend the PIT Count represents about one-third of the actual number of homeless in a given area.

After conducting the count, organizations answer a number of questions from HUD, which decide whether and how much federal money they’ll receive. Has your shelter and unsheltered population increased or decreased? Are they staying in shelters for longer or shorter periods than they were?

Each answer is weighted differently with HUD then awarding each geographical area a ranking. That ranking makes the area eligible for more or less funding.

Who the count misses

Homeless advocates and critics of the count’s methodology say they see no reason to celebrate because of the millions of homeless Americans the count ignores and who suffer in the shadows without help.

Feed the Need serves up meals on a downtown Nashville street on a chilly January day. Photo by D. Douglas.

They argue that determining the number of homeless through a one-time count ignores both the transitive nature of homelessness and the transitory lifestyles of the homeless, leading to a huge undercount.

It does not permit the inclusion of people in marginal housing like rooming houses, hotels and motels, or who are temporarily staying with friends or family due to economic hardship.

“HUD’s definition of homelessness is different than the reality of what homelessness looks like, i.e. couch surfers, etc.,” Garner said.

Bradshaw agreed the definition limits who can be counted or served with the HUD money. When asked whether there are plans to include this population in future PIT counts, Bradshaw replied, “We have no plans to do so in the future. CAFTH considers the people mentioned… to be precariously housed, but not homeless.”

Locally, the families helped by organizations like the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA through their five-year-old Rapid Re-Housing (RRH) program are not included in Shelby County’s homeless population count. Last year alone, MIFA’s program connected 319 families (360 adults and 857 children) with permanent, stable housing, but all were invisible in the local homeless count.

The PIT Count, as a once-a-year snapshot, also misses people who may have experienced homelessness but just not that night, such as seasonal workers or those incarcerated.

Here’s how the number of people experiencing homelessness breaks down in Memphis, according to the CAFTH Point-in-Time 2019 Review.

The increased criminalization of homelessness, fear among the population of government officials and the high rate of formerly incarcerated folks among the homeless also lead to undercounts. Laws criminalizing activities in public places such as sitting, lying, sleeping, loitering and living in vehicles are prevalent and increasing.

Most families and youth who are homeless do not stay in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets where they could be included by the PIT Count. They are more likely to stay temporarily with other people or in motels. This is especially true in rural and suburban areas like Shelby County, which have fewer shelters than large urban centers.

The Rev. Dr. Lisa Anderson, director of Room in the Inn Memphis, an ecumenical program that offers winter shelter to the homeless, and pastor of Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church, voiced many homeless advocates’ frustration with who the count misses and how it understates the situation.

While CAFTH puts the overall homeless count at 1,261 in 2019, “according to the Shelby County Schools system (SCS), they have over 1,900 children that are considered homeless,” Anderson said.

“So that’s couch-surfing, living in cars, different situations,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if it’s going up or going down, but I do know that as long as we’ve been serving, we still see the need outstrip what we can provide.”

The count also excludes people in some institutions such as hospitals and jails, which results in a disproportionate undercounting of racial and ethnic minorities, who are overrepresented in incarcerated populations. The count ignores people with chronic mental or physical disabilities who may frequently bounce between medical facilities and homelessness.

In 2017, when Houston’s PIT count added a supplemental “expanded” version, which included people in county jails who reported homelessness before their arrest, their total number of homeless individuals increased 57%.

Bradshaw readily admits the PIT Count has its limitations.

“The PIT is designed to be only a snapshot of homelessness on one night the last 10 days of January. We will continue to look at best-practice models. We collect year-round data through our Homeless Management Information System [through which] … participating homeless services providers enter data on the people they serve,” Bradshaw said.

“We are hoping to have an app that will help us better share locations on the people we find so that we can find them after the PIT to provide additional services and ultimately find housing for them.”

Michael Jackson is a Communications & Housing Narrative Project Fellow at Community Change, a political analyst/researcher, and freelance writer/editor living in New York City. You can read his work on Medium and follow him on Twitter at @blk_Intellect.

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