The homeless seem ubiquitous in America's large cities. In New York, there is hardly a neighborhood, from the Upper East Side to the Bowery, where one does not encounter a tired man in layers of coats sitting on cardboard, or a woman with a shopping cart sleeping on the sidewalk.
And then there are the ``invisible'' homeless, mostly families or young, unemployed single men who stay in welfare hotels or double up with friends and relatives.
But the debate over how many homeless there are in America raises cries of politics whenever actual counts are undertaken.
At the national level, two sets of widely different figures are so controversial that most reporting on the topic gives both as a compromise. One figure from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that there are between 250,000 and 350,000 persons nationwide without a home. A recent survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research came out with similar numbers.
Homeless advocates tend to use a figure of 2 million to 3 million, first forwarded by Mitch Snyder, an advocate for the homeless in Washington, D.C., which they say is based on reports from the field.
Mr. Snyder has challenged the HUD report in court in an attempt to force its withdrawal. He also charges that members of HUD committed perjury when testifying about the report.
In Chicago, a $450,000 government-sponsored survey recently estimated that there were between 5,000 and 7,000 persons homeless over the course of a year in that city. This was far fewer than the 15,000-to-25,000 estimate that shelter operators and service providers had previously made. Advocates have charged that this is severely undercounted.
``It sent a message to the public and policy makers that it's not so bad, that they don't have to worry,'' says Doug Dobmeyer, president of Chicago's Coaltion for the Homeless.
The state maintains that with a more realistic count, it now knows the problem is ``manageable,'' and it can begin to come up with concrete programs. Indeed, since the count was made public in late August, the state has increased its appropriation for the homeless to $4.1 million. This will include 600 new beds and intensified efforts to help direct the homeless to financial and mental health services.
``The issue is that people are not getting what they are eligible for,'' says Gregory Coler, director of the Illinois Department of Public Aid. ``This report gives us knowledge about the homeless we never had before. We want to do more for them than provide bed and breakfast.''
As winter approaches, more cities are trying to get a handle on the extent of the homeless dilemma. Boston recently completed a count of people on the street. In New York City, the city has sent some homeless families to hotels in Newark, N. J., in hopes of making more space in large shelters.
But the tendentious argument over how many homeless there are continues. And it takes on political overtones. It is seen as a left wing/right wing debate -- the right charges the left with using higher figures to criticize the Reagan administration; the left argues that lower figures are excuses for lack of action.
Others simply feel the numbers games deflect attention from the basic issues.
``If we have three people who can't be housed in Chicago, we have an emergency,'' says Les Brown of Travelers and Immigrants Aid of Chicago. ``Research is a part of what happens when a problem becomes institutionalized. It becomes a way of accepting a very tragic, profoundly disgraceful way to live.''
But numbers are often the means by which government policy is set.
``If we can't define the problem, we can't create solutions,'' says S. Anna Kondratas, a former fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who has studied the discrepancy between estimates on the number of homeless. She sides with the lower HUD figures.
Peter H. Rossi, director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, directed the recent Chicago survey for NORC, a social-science research center affiliated with the University of Chicago. He says the survey shows the problem is not simply homelessness, but extreme poverty, particularly among people without families.
And Dr. Rossi says learning social characteristics about the homeless can help shape state and federal action.
``We need a basic overhaul of the welfare system,'' Rossi says. ``The general assistance level and aid for families with dependent children should be restored to reasonable heights.''
Observers in Chicago agree with Rossi that government grants should be raised, but they fault such ``census'' reports as taking emphasis away from such issues as jobs, housing, and supportive services.