Volunteers to seek an accurate count of city's homeless

Organizers of the effort expect to show official estimate of 3,000 is wrong

April 24, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

When six dozen volunteers fan out across Baltimore tonight, armed with clipboards, bus tokens and fast-food coupons, their assignment will be to count the homeless.

It may feel like trying to nail gelatin to a wall.

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that for each of the 643 emergency shelter beds available in Baltimore, five homeless people go unhoused.

But organizers expect tonight's count to debunk the city's official estimate of 3,000.

"That's not truly a picture of what homelessness looks like in Baltimore," said Alex Boston, director of homeless services for the Department of Housing and Community. "It's hard to say how many people will be found."

Census organizers trained 78 volunteers, including homeless advocates, community activists and church members, to find our what homelessness does look like in the 80-square-mile city.

From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., the volunteers will approach people, ask if they are homeless, and if so, conduct a 20-item questionnaire to record race, gender, age and personal history. In return, homeless participants will receive bus tokens and coupons for a meal at McDonald's.

New, strict federal requirements call for jurisdictions that want federal money to pay for the needs of their homeless to provide more accurate accounting of their numbers. Detailed counts are essential for organizations that assist the homeless and city outreach programs.

"Beyond raw numbers, we're trying to really get a better understanding of the population, to better direct the resources that we have," Boston said.

The task of counting the homeless has stymied the U.S. Census Bureau, advocates for the poor and housing agencies in jurisdictions across the country. This is the same population that census takers were accused of undercounting in 1990. They counted homeless people a decade later without releasing their findings, fearing criticism.

"That has not been released, and we have no plans to release the street enumeration from 2000," said Edison Gore, assistant division chief for 2010 Census planning.

Gore knows how contentious it can be to count the homeless.

The 1990 census indicated that 1,531 homeless people lived on Baltimore streets and in its shelters. Advocates estimated the number about 57 percent higher, at 2,400.

In 1992, Baltimore, San Francisco and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sued in U.S. District Court, charging that the Census Bureau deliberately failed to count thousands of people during the single night it set aside to tally the homeless. The plaintiffs alleged that the resulting undercount would deprive them of federal grant money for homeless programs in 1993.

The irony of cities now employing the same procedure that government was criticized for using amused Gore.

"Everybody has an idea of what the number should be and if you fall short - or if you exceed that number - there are going to be people who are unhappy," he said.

Cities such as Dallas, New York and Boston have completed recent counts of people living on city streets and in emergency shelters. In each city, the tally fell short of estimates.

In Atlanta, volunteers conducted an observational count in March - guessing which people were homeless and which were not and recording the results. Their survey results won't be announced until June, but preliminary figures are surprising low, according to William Matson, executive director of Pathways Community Network, the nonprofit organization that coordinated Atlanta's census.

Volunteers tallied about 2,000 unsheltered people on Atlanta's streets. Added to the 3,500 emergency shelter beds in the city, and an estimate of homeless youths and families who avoided the areas where volunteers where patrolling, Atlanta's new tally of homeless people is about half the 12,000 estimate previously claimed by advocates for the homeless.

Still, said Matson, a smaller verifiable number is preferable to a large fictive one. "A number that you can defend is a lot better than a guesstimate that you can't defend - even if it's lower. It's just more compelling," he said.

Yesterday found Melvin Perdomo, 28, seated on a wooden-slat bench in the cobblestone plaza in Fells Point where he lives. The native of Honduras didn't have much interest in helping Baltimore compile more compelling population numbers of his fellow homeless.

But the prospect of bus fare and a hot meal at McDonald's changed his outlook.

"What time you say they be here?" he asked.

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