The Census Bureau gets it right VTC

Carl F. Horowitz

May 14, 1991|By Carl F. Horowitz

THE CENSUS BUREAU has just issued some myth-shattering figures on homelessness that are giving activists for the homeless more reason than ever to be indignant.

The bureau's new figures are based on last year's unique census effort, in which 15,000 census enumerators fanned out across the country to locate homeless people in shelters and on the streets. Though never intending to give a precise head count, the bureau sought to develop an Carl F.Horowitzaccurate profile of the characteristics and needs of America's homeless.

The preliminary results are in: The bureau found roughly 230,000 homeless persons nationally -- 180,000 residing in emergency shelters and 50,000 on the streets. The figure is well below even the berated U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 1984 estimate of 250,000 to 350,000 homeless.

The late Mitch Snyder, a Washington, D.C. activist, is not here to call a press conference to denounce the census survey as "genocide." Yet several compatriots are carrying the torch. Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, dismissed the bureau count as incomplete, chaotic and haphazard. Fred Karnas, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, called the numbers "laughable."

Such naysayers are aware of what is at stake: Anything that even faintly taints the validity of the 2 million to 3 million estimate they have peddled for nearly a decade casts doubt upon the need for their political existence. (Oddly, the estimate has remained the same, despite an allegedly worsening crisis.) They also know that overestimates of the homeless, when exposed as fraudulent, might prompt Big Government to approve fewer subsidies for questionable programs for the homeless.

It is not as if government has been neglecting the problem, as critics charge. Federal, state and local governments cumulatively spend about $4 billion on the homeless each year; a decade ago, the figure was well under $1 billion.

Homeless activists typically explain away "low" counts with impeccable Catch-22 logic: The counts are low because the homeless cannot be counted. That is, the homeless really do number in the millions, yet their well-honed survival skills enable them to escape detection.

This is why activists tend to demonize any methodologically sound estimate of the homeless. They have denounced studies by Urban Institute researchers Martha Burt and Barbara Cohen, and by University of Massachusetts sociologist Peter Rossi, each pointing to a maximum of about 600,000 homeless nationwide. This also explains why the Children's Defense Fund can claim that there are as many as 2 million homeless Americans under age 18. Don't believe it.

Homeless advocates hired by the Census Bureau to evaluate its 1990 survey in five cities unwittingly have undermined their own argument. In Los Angeles, for example, activists estimate that between 59 and 70 percent of the local street population was overlooked. Some even apply the ratio nationally.

For a moment, let's play their numbers game. Since census workers found only 50,000 people on the streets, this means they overlooked roughly another 100,000. Adding this uncounted population to the 230,000 already tallied yields a total of 330,000 -- comparable to the HUD figure.

More important than pinpointing a specific number are the answers to two difficult questions. First, given what government now spends on the homeless, why hasn't their number fallen in the last few years? Second, why are so many insisting that the government become further involved, especially as pressures mount for fiscal restraint? Unsubsidized nonprofit charities (the Weingart Center in Los Angeles and Lazarus House in Washington, D.C., for example) generally have devised the most effective ways to treat alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness -- all often responsible for homelessness.

The latest Census Bureau figures do more than confirm earlier estimates. They redefine the policy debate. Now that we know more fully the scope of the problem, we are better able to craft real long-term solutions.

Carl F. Horowitz is a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

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