Counting Homeless People In Idaho Is An Inexact Science

Jan 30, 2014

Many homeless people we spoke with did not want their picture taken but David Powell outside Corpus Christi House didn't mind.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

Volunteers are combing Idaho's streets for the next few days asking homeless people where they spent Wednesday night. This annual count is the only source for much of what we know about Idaho's homeless population. Those numbers, which we won’t know for months, help determine how much federal money will come to homeless programs in Idaho.

One place those volunteers will visit is Boise’s Corpus Christi House – a day shelter for those without homes. Several people are hanging out on the back patio. Mark, who doesn’t want to give his last name, huddles over a cup of coffee. Mark says he’s a native Idahoan and he’s been homeless on-and-off since the mid-90s.  He’s frank about why. He says he’s a meth addict. That’s also why he sleeps outside most nights. His addiction, he says, drives everything he does.

“When you’re in a mission or something like that, you have to go by their rules and be in at a certain time and it just doesn’t work when you’ve got an addiction to feed,” Mark says.

I tell him about the results of last year’s homeless count. It says the number of people who stay in shelters is not changing much, but those who sleep outside is down. He says there are a lot fewer people sleeping where he does than there were a couple years ago. Mark says he often sleeps in a make-shift shelter along the Boise River.

“I’ve watched all the camps up and down the river get run out by the police, and the police haven’t found me yet so I’m still there,” Mark says.

Mark doesn’t believe there are fewer unsheltered homeless people in Boise or in Idaho. He thinks they’ve just moved and are harder to find.

People sometimes sleep in the alley behind Corpus Christi day shelter.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

Jim Birdsall takes the numbers with a grain or two of salt.

“We look at these numbers as an encouragement, but I’m not sure they’re the kind of numbers that I can say definitively that homelessness is down,” Birdsall says. 

Birdsall manages housing and community development for the city of Boise. He oversees what’s known as a continuum of care. It’s a coalition of Ada County organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness.

The only data on the unsheltered population comes from that once-a-year volunteer effort called the Point In Time (PIT) count. It’s done for HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This method has critics, but even people like Birdsall, who see it as useful, say it’s a bare minimum estimate.

“It’s hard to draw hard and fast conclusions from counting homeless individuals one time in the year,” Birdsall says.

A lot of factors can skew the results. Severe weather can make homeless people difficult to find. And, like Mark says, people move around. Birdsall admits that’s always a struggle.

“We try to stay on top of that as best we can by talking to everybody you can think of to find out if there are areas you’re not aware of where people that are experiencing homelessness can be found that’s not the usual place,” Birdsall says.

For example he says, in one recent year they heard many people had begun to sleep in cars in a Walmart parking, lot so they sent volunteers there during the count.

The city contracts with a private company called the Balance Business to do the count. Balance does many jobs for the city. The PIT count is a small job, so the contract doesn’t say how much the city is paying for it. It falls under a $12,000 service called "fulfilling HUD requirements." The person in charge at Balance estimates the PIT count costs about $2,400 of that. Balance recruits and trains the volunteers, and gets the data to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association which manages it for HUD.

There are six other regions of the state conducting counts as well. All ask people where they slept the night of Jan. 29. According to last year’s count, nearly 40 percent of Idahoans who were homeless were in Ada County.

Birdsall says the Point In Time count is most useful to look at changes over time. He says because the counts from the past three years show a fairly steady drop in unsheltered homeless in Idaho, he believes this downward trend is real. But Birdsall doesn’t know why it’s happening. Neither does Bill Block, northwest regional director for HUD.

“I think it’s because there’s been more resources allocated, although those are threatened by cuts,” Block says. “And program changes that have made the work more effective.”

Birdsall agrees with Block, that people who house the homeless have gotten more effective. He says maybe more people have been placed in homes, making more space at shelters and many people who used to sleep outside are now in those shelter beds. So the sheltered number stays static while the unsheltered one drops. However, Birdsall can’t prove this or his assertion that more homeless Idahoans are getting housing.

There has been an increase in funding. Federal money for homeless programs coming though the Idaho Housing and Finance Association went from about $2.4 million in 2008 to about $4.6 million beginning in 2010. There was stimulus money in that increase, but a lot of federal dollars are tied to the results of the Point In Time count. Still, HUD’s Bill Block says there are many unsheltered homeless people who won’t get counted.

“There are going to be more people in a rural environment like Idaho, that you just don’t find,” Block says. “You know, who are out in a camper somewhere or who are in the back of a pick-up truck parked somewhere.”

Even in the heart of Boise some people don’t get counted, like Mark, who’s spent 20 years living outside.

“I’ve never run into anybody that counts,” Mark says. “I wasn’t even aware of that.”

Thursday and Friday there will be more than 40 volunteers searching Ada County for Mark and others like him. If they find him, they’ll ask where he slept Wednesday night. But Mark says they’ll only find him if he wants to be found.

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