The homeless get counted

Perhaps not with pride, but with a certain dignity, Dane Blythe crawled out of his tent in late January and got counted in the second national count of the chronically homeless.

After 31 years living in the outdoors, Mr. Blythe, a ditch digger, is the picture of America's seemingly intractable homeless problem. Sometimes, he says, he questions his vagabond lifestyle. Other times he values its freedom.

"I'm like anybody else," he said during an interview last week.

In rickety encampments from Los Angeles to here in Garner, N.C., an estimated 800,000 homeless hunker on the fringes of cities and towns, often struggling with poverty, mental illness, or addiction. This year's count, judging from early indications, will show that a government-led race to end chronic homelessness by 2011 is far off the pace.

Despite criticisms of its accuracy and methodology, the US-mandated National Point-in-Time Survey is itself emblematic of innovative new efforts to bring America's most disaffected, disfranchised population in from the cold. To people like Blythe, the very fact that he has been seen and counted carries a measure of hope.

"The good part of the [snapshot survey] is that it's created a sense of movement, and both the private- and public-sector people are starting to say, 'Yeah, we need to do something,' " says Joel John Roberts, executive director of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) in Los Angeles and author of the satire "How to Increase Homelessness."

In more than 3,800 communities from Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles, volunteers in January peeked into culverts, looked under bridges, and trudged through the woods to find vagabond encampments and count the homeless. Because many homeless people try hard to keep a low profile, survey organizers sometimes resorted to the controversial practice of hiring homeless people as guides for $10 an hour. The task was made more difficult by safety rules that prohibit volunteers from entering private property or ducking down dark alleys. To be included in the federal count, a person must be homeless for a year or more, or have been homeless at least four times in the past three years.

Though the national count won't be released until 2008, officials in Wichita, Kan., reported the number of homeless had dropped from 589 last January to 526, though they couldn't cite why. Around Raleigh, N.C., the tally rose a bit, from 1,726 to 1,820. The survey showed that 1,300 children were homeless on one January day in Florida's Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

The survey is designed in part to quantify the problem and to set base lines for communities, which must take part to qualify for federal funds for the homeless. But the count also humanizes those who live outside, experts say, and helps to galvanize communities struggling to create or maintain political will to do something about homelessness.

The survey helps "people understand that homelessness isn't only a city problem," says Diane Randall of the Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford, Conn., which promotes supportive housing for the state's homeless population.

Relying on shelters, soup kitchens, and charitable groups to fight homelessness has been a failure, however well-intended, says Phil Mangano, director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington, made up of the chiefs of 24 federal agencies. The homeless census can be seen as part of a federal shift away from "three hots and a cot" – an approach that has had only a marginal impact on reducing the number of homeless people.

"We had long hoped that the moral and spiritual and human and cultural ... responsibilities that we felt toward people literally on the streets would drive political will necessary" to end homelessness, says Mr. Mangano. "But not in one place in our country did that happen."

So far, the surveys have helped the Interagency Council to bring mayors, city councilors, and county commissioners to the table, a process that has led to 293 local 10-year plans to end homelessness. Private-sector efforts are under way, too, including plans by a Florida architect to build a 5,500-bed homeless "village" near Orlando.

But the greatest successes are actual construction or conversion of apartments into "supportive housing" – in effect, a form of rent control for the homeless, with health and mental services available on site. Some 50,000 such units now house formerly homeless people in cities like New York; Norfolk, Va.; Hartford, Conn.; San Francisco, and San Diego, according to the Interagency Council.

A 2005 study by the University of California at San Diego, for the city of San Diego, found that the average street person in California costs communities between $40,000 and $150,000 a year in public services ranging from healthcare to police.

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