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Counting the Homeless Is an Important Task

April 08, 1990

Persons working with homeless people realize the task of counting them (Times, March 22) is difficult and that the job of taking the census of all American residents is an enormous challenge. However, the count of homeless people is especially important because many of the state and federal govermental programs will depend on accurate numbers for determining the size and scope of the needed responses, e.g., affordable housing.

Some have accused people working with the homeless of wanting the census to fail and that they just sat by and criticized. I imagine most of those who work with homeless did as we did:

1. About 1 1/2 years ago I met with Brenda August, a regional community awareness specialist. She described the proposed plan for counting the homeless and asked for my feedback and suggestions. She said my comments were similar to any others: do it during the day in a "you count" plan.

2. When the final plan was printed in Washington, it was unchanged from the original proposal. We called at least one newspaper editor to see if some coverage might open up the discussion.

3. When we received the announcement of hiring for the census, we encouraged four of our qualified homeless residents to apply for the jobs. We had been led to believe that homeless persons would get some priority on hiring for the homeless count. There were no special procedures described so they applied as anyone would. After the count we were told that because they had an address, the shelter for the homeless, they weren't considered homeless! All residents use our address and phone number because without it no one would consider hiring them. There was no place in the application process where they were asked if they were homeless. There must have been another procedure used in other areas where the homeless were hired.

4. I'm sure that many individuals did a good job as enumerators. The 10 pairs covering all the miles from El Monte to Pomona is not enough. In one group of five teams there was only one map, no directions to specific locations, the team leader did not know the area and many known areas were not on the list. When one team reported not seeing children, that suggests a problem. At least 40% of the homeless are families with children and they are hard to find. The street count--those in cars, abandoned buildings, and tucked in and around buildings--is very difficult. With thousands of homeless in the Pomona Valley, the (Pomona Valley Council of Churches) staff is concerned about an adequate count. We join others all over the country who believe the plan for counting was very inadequate.

5. We also find it strange that we were not called during the preparation time to see where homeless people are sleeping, even though we are one of three groups who work most with the homeless in this area (the Neighborhood Center and New Gethsemane are the others). But our interest is not our involvement but in the results, the accurate numbers.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to develop ways to help people find housing and develop stable, safe lives. This will only occur when we as a nation use our creativity to find solutions to the problems of millions of our residents who have no place to call home.

PAT IRISH

executive director,

Pomona Valley

Council of Churches

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