During the last week of January, volunteers blanket the streets of cities across the U.S. to seek out what they might otherwise ignore. They peek into alleyways and under freeway overpasses to find and count the homeless. It's an effort framed as a way to help communities understand their homeless populations and how best to serve them. Next January, they'll be doing it again, spanning out into neighborhoods all over the country to put a number on one of the most persistent social issues in urban America.
But all this counting may not actually be doing much to good. Christine Jocoy, an associate professor of geography at California State University, Long Beach, worries that too much emphasis is being placed on collecting the data and not enough on actually using it. In a commentary published recently in the journal Cultural Geographies, Jocoy criticizes what she calls a "culture of quantification."
"I don’t necessarily think that collecting the data is a bad thing. My argument is really that the counting is a very first step," says Jocoy. "I think what happens is that first step ends up becoming the main way people are engaged with homelessness."
Advocates for the homeless would argue that these homeless counts are important because they remind people and public officials that there's still a problem. But Jocoy worries that there is a disproportionate amount of attention paid to measurement methods and not enough time spent interpreting and responding to these numbers.
It's difficult, Jocoy says, to find evidence of how the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Congress use the data beyond simply reporting it. "They primarily say once they get it they use it to increase awareness and maybe to reallocate some finances," she says. "But that's it."
At the local level, these counts are important for cities to be able to apply for funding to help keep shelters open and programs running. Jocoy has participated in homeless counts in Long Beach since 2005, and has also analyzed the data for the city.
"In a real basic sense it does provide for additional funding. And for many of the people who work in cities, that's good enough," Jocoy says. "Because they need the money to fund the programs that they already have, so they collect the information to put it in the application. For them, that’s reason enough to do it."
But when these numbers are merely used to re-prove that a problem exists, Jocoy says that local approaches to addressing homelessness don't change much. She argues that there needs to be more leadership from the federal level about how to actually use these numbers to improve local efforts to fight homelessness.
"There's no systematic advice for [cities] about 'if your numbers say this, here are the things you might want to try.' If we had studies that actually did that instead of just counting, that would be really useful for individual cities," Jocoy says.
Another problem, Jocoy says, is that this culture of quantification creates the illusion that merely counting is doing more than it really is. Because they rely on volunteers, these counts tend to emphasize the potential impact they will have on addressing the large problem of homelessness. "Your participation will aid our efforts to better understand homelessness, target resources most effectively and increase public awareness about homelessness," says one homeless count volunteer website.
And the counts are important, Jocoy reiterates. But she also recognizes that it's easy for well-meaning people to come out for a few hours of counting and leave with the sense that they've helped crack the nut of homelessness.
"It’s a lot easier to do that than to get somebody to actually think seriously about what could I do to personally help someone who's homeless reintegrate into society. Am I willing to have low-income housing in my neighborhood? Am I willing to pay for projects that provide for mental health and substance abuse care? Those are the things that really solve homelessness," Jocoy says.
In a few months, when volunteers go back out onto the streets to update their cities' homeless counts, it's likely that not much will have changed. There will be new numbers, certainly, but Jocoy says it's hard to imagine those numbers being used any differently than they are now. It's a frustrating reality, and one that holds back progress towards addressing this widespread issue.
"We know the problem exists," Jocoy says. "How often do we need to keep putting numbers towards demonstrating that it exists?"
Top image: A volunteer in New York observes a homeless man sleeping beside a road during a homeless count in 2005. Credit: Reuters