Homelessness Myth #3: Unsheltered People Only Count At Night

Also published on The Huffington Post.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal (HUD) requires that every two years during the last seven days of January, Continuum of Care (CoC) systems (those agencies that HUD funds on a competitive basis) count the number of homeless people within their geographical areas.

HUD guidelines suggest that the best practice for counting homeless people is to count unsheltered homeless people on the same night as counting people staying in shelters or when the shelters are closed.  Thus, while the counts of homeless people living in shelters take place during the day, the counts for unsheltered homeless people generally take place from midnight until 4:00 a.m., or from very early in the morning, often beginning before 4:00 a.m.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the lead agency for Los Angeles CoC, counted 68,608 homeless people residing within the Los Angeles CoC.  Not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,094 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2007, the total count of homeless people in Los Angeles County was 73,702.

On October 28 of this year, LAHSA released its January 27-29, 2009 count of homeless people that found that 42,694 homeless people reside within the Los Angeles CoC. Again, not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,359 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2009, the homeless population in Los Angeles County was counted as 48,053.

While 48,053 homeless people is an extremely large number, representing misery for thousands of men, women and children, this number is surprising to some service providers because it represents an unexpected 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in 2007.

In its press release, “New Census Reveals Decline in Greater Los Angeles Homelessness,” LAHSA attributes this 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in Los Angeles County in 2009 to “progress in the City’s and County’s efforts at reducing homelessness.”

Of particular interest are the statistics that LAHSA quotes in its press release stating that:

[t]he decline in the numbers for Los Angeles appears consistent with similar national decreases [in the number of homeless people counted] seen in areas like: 

New York: 30% decrease
Indianapolis 22% decrease
Riverside County 22% decrease


I propose that counting all homeless people, whether sheltered or unsheltered, during the day would yield a more accurate number of the people who are homeless.

1. Finding unsheltered homeless people at night is problematic. In some cities, there is police activity to break up illegal public camping.  However, on those nights at the end of January every two years, enumerators look forward to finding encampments so that they can find homeless people to count.

It would appear that the police and the enumerators are working at cross-purposes.

2. Would you like it if a team of enumerators came to your home in the middle of the night?  Some homeless people know about the count process and may not want to be disturbed so perhaps they find more out-of-the-way places to stay on census nights.

3. Some unsheltered homeless people stay awake at night.  Why?  Because sleeping at night “outside” puts homeless people in a very vulnerable state.  They often sit in well-lit areas or on buses, or they walk.

The unsheltered homeless people who do try to sleep at night often look for quiet, private places so they are protected from prying eyes, possible attacks and the elements.

4. I suggest that the enumerators bring non-perishable canned and packaged food with can openers to these hungry, poor people.  This act of charity could make the counting experience something that homeless people might look forward to and for which they would make themselves more available.

5. Unsheltered homeless people can be more easily found during the day in public places, in food lines and at service providers’ locations.  Why not utilize the organizers and volunteers at these locations to help introduce the enumerators to their guests?

Finding unsheltered working homeless people can be accomplished by talking to the organizers, volunteers, service providers or friends who know these homeless people.

6. Concerned about double counting homeless people? Homeless people are knowable.  Prior to the official counting dates, a team could just go out, meet homeless people and bring much-needed canned or packaged food.  By knowing in advance many of the people they are counting, enumerators would know to avoid counting the same person twice.

Further, in the case of meeting a homeless person who enumerators have not previously met, the enumerators could simply ask the homeless person if he/she has been counted already.  Once a trust or friendship has been established between any enumerator and any homeless person, this information will be more readily forth coming.

7. It would be helpful if each team of enumerators were accompanied by a trained mental health professional.  Stress is a challenge for all of us and certainly homeless people experience a great deal of stress.  Thus, by their mere calming presence, these mental health professionals would be providing a valuable service.

It is important for many reasons, including justifying the funding of homelessness services, that homeless people be counted.  However, we must be as creative in our thinking about the ways to count them as homeless people are creative in the ways that they survive on the streets.

As fellow human beings, homeless people are entitled to our respect, need our help and deserve our compassion.


Homelessness Myth #1: “Get a Job!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

This post begins a series of articles about the myths surrounding homelessness. Myths are just widely held thoughts or beliefs that are not generally true. Possibly one of the most widely expressed myths is that homeless people would not be homeless except for the fact they don’t want to get a job.

First, many homeless people are employed while some even have two jobs. Usually, these people sleep under some kind of shelter. They may be living in a homeless shelter or transitional housing situation, on someone else’s couch or in someone’s garage. Since the foreclosure crisis, many families have formed “tent cities” from which they work.

Second, in order to get a job, people must be clean and they must wear clean clothing.   Even at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants employees are required to be clean. County, state and federal rules and regulations provide the standards by which fast-food restaurants must abide for the health and safety of their patrons.

Proper sanitation facilities are essential so that people and their clothing can be clean and meet the most basic qualification for a job–cleanliness. Without access to toilets, showers and laundry facilities, how are people to keep themselves and their clothing clean?

There are few public toilets, fewer public showers and even fewer public laundry facilities available to homeless people. Toilets and showers are available to students of community colleges, so some homeless people try to enroll in classes. Places like the YMCA have public toilets and showers, but day or membership fees are required that most homeless people cannot afford.

Some years ago, most of the public toilets available to homeless people were in fast-food restaurants or at gasoline service stations.

As the number of homeless people increased, the owners of fast-food restaurants began to lock their restroom doors and charge 10 or 25 cents per use. Of course, tokens to the restrooms were made available to restaurant patrons at the counter.

The restrooms at gasoline service stations were also closed to the public, with access to their toilets restricted through keys available only upon request by patrons. Today, a number of service stations have permanently closed their restrooms to the public by displaying “Out of Service” or “Out of Order” signs on their doors.

To be fair to the owners of fast-food restaurants and gasoline service stations, homeless people sometimes overuse restroom facilities by “bathing” in the sinks, which could potentially damage the plumbing. Other times, some homeless people may spend too long in the restrooms, thereby depriving other patrons the use of the facilities within a reasonable period of time. Further, if people have not had access to a shower or laundry facilities for a time, an odor can be detrimental to business.

How can homeless people clean themselves and their clothing? One answer to this question was the concept of “Housing First,” first popularized by Tanya Tull, founder of Para Los Ninos and Beyond Shelter.  This concept, which proposes housing creation for homeless people must come before or at least in tandem with job creation, has now been popularly accepted.

Unfortunately, sufficient housing for homeless people has been slow in developing and most, if not all of the shelters are full with long waiting lists for future available living space.

Offering public toilets and public showers equipped with available laundry facilities is another answer. Because there is an entire industry involved in the design, construction and rental of portable lavatories and showers, municipalities could quickly make these available to homeless people. Perhaps these public restrooms and showers could be situated near city-owned or operated laundry facilities.

Of course, municipalities could just maintain their existing public toilets and showers on a twenty-four hour a day basis, seven days a week, for their homeless residents.

Cities could also contract with existing homeless shelters to provide public toilets, showers and even laundry facilities to non-resident homeless people.

Third, not every person–housed or homeless–is capable of working. For example, in my experience, 35% of homeless people have problems with mental illness. Some of this mental illness is mild and some is totally debilitating.

To include housed or unhoused mentally ill people within the workforce requires mental health assistance. Certainly, there are mental health programs available for people regardless of their housing situation. However, unhoused people have the additional challenge of finding and pursuing mental health assistance while they have no permanent residence. I think most of us can agree this challenge could be overwhelming for many homeless people.

“Get a job!” is an easy expression to say. However, for some homeless people, getting a job is an impossible dream.

Homelessness By The Numbers

Also published on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-schanes/homelessness-by-the-numbe_b_184332.html

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a person who you thought was homeless.  I can see that all hands are up!

I’ll be 61 years old this week and when I was young, the situation was not as it is now.  In my youth, the vast majority of people who were homeless were men. There were very few women and even less children who were homeless.


In the old days, we called those homeless men words like, “hobos” or worse.  We envisioned them “riding the rails,” jumping on and off railroad freight cars and living a life that they chose, free of cares and woes.  At that time, the homeless life was romanticized and movies were made, such as “Emperor of the North” staring Lee Marvin, which depicted homeless men enjoying life to the fullest without any reflection on their possible responsibilities to society.


Today, this is not the picture of homelessness.  In my experience, I have found:


• 40% of the people who are homeless are women and children.  There are no happy movies about their lifestyles, in fact, barely anyone is talking about their plight.  And, certainly, these women and children have not chosen to be homeless.  As if things could not get worse, the number of women and children who are becoming homeless is increasing.


• 25% of today’s homeless people are people who have served in war, generally the Vietnam War.  I thought this number would be decreasing, but with the Iraqi War veterans returning with little or no care for their mental and physical health, it’s going to remain at the 25% level for quite some time.  The Department of Defense has found that 17% of returning Iraqi War veterans are returning with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  PTSD (formerly called “battle fatigue”) is a condition that may exist for its victims from 30 to 40 years.


• 35% of the people I’ve found to be homeless today are men who have had a devastating negative experience of some kind.


Where has the free lifestyle of homelessness gone?  I suggest that view that there was ever a free lifestyle that people chose to live by being homeless was a myth.  It never happened.  But, the myth provided a good storyline for movies.


What happened in sixty years?  Who are homeless people?  Why are they living outside?  Why don’t they have homes?  Oh my God, what happened?


In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released their report, “Homelessness Counts” citing:


• 672,000 people were homeless each night in the United States (population over 300 million).


• 3.5 million people are homeless throughout the year in the United States.

• Nearly 160,000 people are homeless in the State of California (total population 36 million).


In their report, “2007 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count”, the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority (LAHSA) found that in Los Angeles County (population over 10 million), California there are:


• Over 10,000 children and teens who are homeless every night.


• Nearly 74,000 homeless men, women and children each night in the County.


• Over 141,000 people experienced homelessness in Los Angeles over the course of 2006.


In “2006 Short-Term Housing Directory of Los Angeles County,” Shelter Partnership determined that there are just over 17,000 shelter beds in all of the homeless shelters for the 74,000 people who are homeless every night.  Obviously, people are living “outside” because there is no room in the “inn.”


What are the causes of homelessness?


The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) published a number of causes for homelessness in their fact sheet in June of 2008:


• Increasing poverty caused by eroding employment opportunities and declining public assistance.


The NCH noted that “[h]omelessness and poverty are inextricably linked” because when resources are limited, people often lose their housing.  It adds, “Being poor means being an illness, an accident or a paycheck away from living on the streets.”


• Lack of affordable housing.


• Lack of affordable health care.


• Domestic violence.


• Mental illness.


• Addiction disorders.


In 2000, The National Alliance to End Homelessness published, “A Plan, Not A Dream:  How to End Homelessness” which gives a very brief explanation of how homelessness developed: “While the seeds of homelessness were planted in the 1960s and 1970s with deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people and loss of affordable housing stock, widespread homelessness did not emerge until the 1980s.”


It lists several factors that affected the increase in homelessness:

• Lack of affordable housing.

• Income from employment and benefits not keeping pace with costs of available housing.

• Social trends, including illegal drugs, single parent households and “thinning support networks.”


What is being done about ending homelessness?


On March 24, 2009, President Obama stated in his news conference that homelessness is unacceptable: “Part of a change in attitudes that I want to see here in Washington and all across the country is a belief that it is not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.”


The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) commented on their website, nlchp.com, in “News,” dated March 25, 2009, that “Homeless is indeed unacceptable.  But the President’s clear statement of this obvious fact is remarkable.”


In “News,” NLCHP founder and executive director, Maria Foscarinis, stated, “This is the first time in recent memory that a president has made such a clear and unequivocal statement [about homelessness]”


The NLCHP, through “News,” further reminds us that in the early 1980’s President Ronald Reagan called homelessness “a lifestyle choice,” while “President George W. Bush made a commitment to end ‘chronic homelessness,’ – the most narrowly defined category – in ten years.”


In President Obama’s press conference on March 24th, Kevin Chappel commented “[A] recent report found that as a result of the economic downturn, 1 in 50 children are now homeless in America.  With shelters at full capacity, tent cities are sprouting up across the country.”


He asked the President, “In passing the stimulus package, you said that help was on the way.  But what would you say to these families, especially the children, who are sleeping under bridges and in tents across the country?”


President Obama replied, “Well, the first thing I’d say is that I’m heartbroken that any child in America is homeless.  And the most important thing that I can do on their behalf is to make sure their parents have a job.  And that’s why the recovery package said, as a first priority, how are we going to save or create 3.5 million jobs?”


In fact, the stimulus package of which President Obama speaks is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  The funding for this Act is over 800 billion dollars of which 1.5 billion dollars is to be devoted to homelessness prevention and rehousing activities.


I look forward to your comments. Thanks, Christine