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Published: Saturday, 11/3/2001

Counting the homeless

How many homeless people are there in the United States? After conducting a one-day head count in shelters around the country, the Census Bureau says the official number is 170,706. The danger now is that Congress and state and local officials may start using this misleadingly low figure in formulating policy toward the poor.

The census bureau chose to count people where they are easiest to find: in homeless shelters, emergency shelters with sleeping facilities, shelters for runaway or neglected children, and hotels and motels used specifically to provide housing for the homeless. The bureau did not check shelters that accommodate abused women.

Of those enumerated, 41 percent were white, 40 percent were black, and 20 percent Latino. Most - 61 percent - were men, while 26 percent were under the age of 18.

Notwithstanding the limited census count, the homeless population is in all likelihood far greater, although estimates are really all we have to go on. After all, how easy is it to locate people who are living in abandoned buildings, cars, campgrounds, temporarily with relatives, under bridges, or are simply roaming the streets?

In 2000, the federal Department of Health and Human Services put the number of homeless at about 600,000. About the same time, the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C., estimated that at least 2.3 million Americans were likely to be homeless at least once during the year.

That's the thing about being homeless - many aren't continuously without a place to live. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, counting all the people “experiencing homelessness” at any point in time is a logistical impossibility.

The lack of concrete numbers on the homeless is frustrating for those who care about aid - shelter, food, clothing, medical care - for the poor, especially children. There is a danger that the low census count could be used by the bean counters in Congress, state legislatures, and cities and counties to justify further cuts in social services. As the economy worsens nationally, that would be a dangerous trend for a number of people that will surely grow.

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