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pm - how does DC count america's homeless vets

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Dec 11, 2009
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How Does Washington D.C. Count America's Homeless Vets?
The Obama administration recently said that the number of homeless veterans dropped by 12 percent from 2010 to 2011. But getting accurate counts of the homeless is extremely difficult, and the government changed its counting methods during the year of the reported drop. Is the number of homeless vets really going down, or is the drop an artifact of murky statistics?

January 19, 2012 12:00 PM

(image/Homeless U.S. military veterans stand in line to receive free services at a "Stand Down" event hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs on November 3, 2011 in Denver, Colorado)
John Moore/Getty Images

It's extraordinarily difficult to get accurate statistics on the number of homeless people in the United States. That's why it's so interesting that Shaun Donovan, the secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), announced in late December a double-digit percentage point drop in the national number of homeless veterans over one year.

"I'm thrilled to announce that we have evidence that this funding is making a real difference to getting homeless veterans off the street and into homes they can call their own," Donovan said during a press conference. "Thanks to the work done by HUD, and agency partners across the Obama Administration, the most recent homeless estimate shows veteran homelessness fell by nearly 12 percent in just one year."

Donovan attributed the improvement to billions in anti-homeless initiatives invested by the federal government since 2009. But what he didn't mention is that between 2010 and 2011, HUD changed the way it counts homeless veterans, and those changes could throw uncertainty on the veracity of the numbers. Last year, HUD stopped using statistical estimates and instead mandated that homeless organizations that receive federal money survey homeless people to determine if they are veterans. They also used figures supplied by local Veteran Administration (VA) programs instead of estimates.

The big question, then, is: Are we really seeing a substantial drop in the number of homeless vets? Or could the 12 percent decline in homeless vets be an artifact of 2011's new methodology?

After speaking to HUD officials, homeless shelters, and statisticians, PM found good and bad news. There has been very real local coordination between the VA and HUD to help homeless veterans. But the truth is that no one—not even HUD's number crunchers—is sure if the new method of counting homeless vets is driving the stats up or down. Furthermore, federal reports warn that drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the White House's proposal to cut overall troop levels, may lead to spikes in homelessness in young veterans, which local aid workers say is a growing problem.

And even if the decline is real, much of the improvement can be attributed to a one-shot infusion of cash from the administration's economic stimulus plan of 2009. Thus, while we hope the homeless vets situation is indeed improving, headlines that tout a big decrease in the number of homeless veterans may give a false impression of sustainable progress—just as the problem is poised to get worse.

Apples to Apples, or Something Else?

In the third week of January every other year, thousands of volunteers across the country fan out for one night to count the homeless on the streets. These snapshots, called Point in Time (PIT) counts, are the only nationwide metric available to gauge the country's homeless people living outside of shelters. Homeless aid groups, called Continuums of Care (CoC) in federal lingo, are responsible for these counts. They must deliver these stats as a condition of applying for funding from HUD, which crunches all the data to estimate the desperate homeless population.

But here's where it starts to get tricky. In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people. However, HUD knows that a head count isn't going to include everyone. For example, homeless vets who stay in beds at VA shelters were not counted. Homeless people on the streets were not asked if they were veterans or not. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD "imputed"—that is, they estimated—the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic. For reference, a 12 percent drop in the nation's homeless vets equates to 8834 fewer people.

A company called ABT Associates collates the homeless counts for HUD. Alvaro Cortes, the company's project director, tells PM that in 2010 ABT tested at least 10 methods of imputing the numbers to reach the most accurate count. That included applying imputations to known figures to determine their accuracy. (PM asked for the range of results from these tests but has not received an answer.) Cortes says that it works best to adjust the numbers at the most local level rather than applying a broad adjustment to the total head-count numbers reported to Washington: "My gut tells me that homelessness, like a lot of social issues, is shaped by the local forces: how tight the housing market might be, how deep the social safety network in that community, and the capacity of the homeless service system."

In 2010 (and before), HUD's imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.

In 2011, though, rather than estimating, HUD asked the local volunteers to poll homeless on the streets to see if they were vets. "This additional step in the unsheltered count can be pretty tough to pull off because you can no longer just go to a park and, if someone is sleeping on the bench, check that person off as being homeless," Cortes says. "You have to wake him and say, 'Are you a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services?' "

The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night—about 86 percent in 2010—and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn't match up to the VA's statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.

HUD says this new, mandated coordination is leading to more accurate figures. But it is unclear if this change has driven statistics of homeless veterans up or down, and HUD isn't asking. "It's a good question, but at this point we haven't drilled down into the data that much to be able to answer with any confidence," Cortes says. "HUD would have to instruct us to do it."

"No Single Right Answer"

Even though HUD used different methods to tally homeless vets in 2010 and 2011, it compared the two years to produce the 12 percent drop cited by Donovan. "The reality is that these methodologies are changing all the time every year," Cortes says. "I understand why one would focus on wanting to make sure that you have apple-to-apple comparisons, and you try to do that as best as possible. But you also don't want to stymie the CoCs from improving their methodologies to try to get more accurate counts."

HUD officials are quick to say that their numbers are getting more accurate‚ but at the same time they argue that the two separate methods can be held against each other in a year-to-year comparison. Asked if the reported 12 percent drop between 2010 and 2011 could be the result of simply overcounting during the earlier survey, Mark Johnston, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs at HUD, responded: "That would presume our adjustments are completely wrong. Our prior imputations were made to ensure the best number possible." Despite the differences in methodology, Johnston says, "There has to be a point of comparison."

But while ABT contractors stand by their work, they are also realistic about the limits of the statistics. "Is it possible that some of the change is an artifact of changing methodologies? I suppose so," Cortes says. "I mean, I can't say for certain that that's the case, but I suppose that can happen. You may not have a whole lot of choices, and you just do the best you can with the best data that you have in hand."

David Marker is a senior statistician for the research company Westat and the person to whom the American Statistical Association directs reporters when they have questions about homeless counts. "The biggest weakness of the 2010 numbers is that almost half of the localities didn't collect any information, so in these communities the 2009 numbers were reused," Marker says. For this reason he prefers to use more reliable statistics generated in 2009. Comparing 2009 stats with those of 2011, Marker sees an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, with overall homelessness going down only 1 percent over the same time.

He says that this sort of quandary is common in the world of the statistician. "Methodology does change regularly, sometimes because a better method is devised or better data sources become available," he says.

But this uncertainty is a far cry from Secretary Donovan's public confidence that programs aimed to help homeless vets are definitely working because the stats seem to suggest that. HUD spokesmen say everything is aboveboard. "There is evidence to suggest that we're seeing a documented, noticeable, significant decline in veteran homelessness in this country," spokesman Brian Sullivan says. "The only hard stick we have to measure it are, maybe even as flawed as they are, these Point In Time numbers."

The administration has sunk billions into helping homeless people, and signs that it is working are eagerly touted. Says HUD's Sullivan: "Given the circumstances, any policymaker will stand up and point to it."

The Street-Level View

Greta Guarton, the executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, has worked with homeless services in Long Island, New York, for 20 years. "It's become sort of sexy in Washington, D.C., to say we're going to end veteran homelessness," she says. "But no one really knows how many homeless veterans there even are."

Guarton and other workers at homeless aid agencies contacted by PM, say that federal programs are helping‚ but that the problem is getting worse. Guarton says her group is pleased with the federal programs set up by the administration to help homeless vets. She cited the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program (VASH), which started in 2008 with a $75 million allotment. The program sets aside vouchers to help veterans find homes and receive case management to help stabilize their lives. The program has been renewed every year since; HUD allocated $50 million during 2011 to the vouchers and set aside $75 million for 2012. (That's 11,538 new vouchers for homeless veterans.) The total from 2008 to 2012 tops a billion dollars.

Still, Guarton does not see a drop in homeless vets in Long Island. "In terms of the calls we get, I am seeing more homeless people calling who are veterans," she says. "It seems like there is a greater need." There are 225 VASH recipients in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where Guarton works. "Two years ago, there were many vouchers in Nassau and Suffolk [counties] that were not used," she says. "Now they are all used."

In the Los Angeles area, which has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation, the numbers of homeless veterans have risen between 2009 and 2011. Michael Arnold, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), sees a steep rise in the numbers of young veterans on the streets. "As folks return from current wars, for whatever reason, their needs are not being met," he says. "You have to overlay that with an economic environment where it's difficult to find a job."

The administration's effort to address homeless veterans also included a one-shot infusion of $1.5 billion included in Obama's 2009 financial stimulus package. Funds for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program helped families pay rent and cover other housing expenses; the enrollment process prioritizes military veterans. LAHSA received $70 million of the stimulus money. "The infusion of funding to prevent homelessness, especially the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, had a big impact in keeping the numbers down," Arnold says.

Marker sees evidence that government programs are helping by looking at shelter statistics outside of the PIT counts that Donovan cited to give his 12 percent drop. "The sheltered-veteran homeless numbers dropped 8.5 percent from 2009 to 2011, and there wasn't any major methodological change in the shelters," he notes. Marker (comparing 2009 and 2011 stats) concludes: "Whether all of the 11 percent is a real drop is unclear, but most of it probably is."

HUD officials say they are doing the best they can with the data available. "When you have a $1.5 billion HPRP program and you've put about 30,000 VASH vouchers out into the marketplace, everybody is going to want to know, does it have an impact?" Sullivan says. "And so you measure as best you can. "

But the stimulus money is gone, and HUD reports given to Congress warn that the homeless veteran problem will likely get worse as the Pentagon draws down from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The long-term prognosis also looks grim: Last week the Obama administration announced that the armed services will shrink by tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines. In a weak economy, the numbers of homeless veterans may spike, overwhelming the system that HUD says is working so well.

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