It's Tough To Count Idaho's Homeless, But Here's Why It's Important

Jan 29, 2015

Every year in late January volunteers around the country, and across Idaho, take to the streets to ask people experiencing homelessness where they slept on a particular night. It's a difficult task because people who sleep in their cars or in parks -- known as unsheltered homeless -- can be hard to find. But the numbers volunteers come up with are important because they're used for things like setting federal funding for local homeless programs.

First-time Point in Time (PIT) Count volunteers Chloe Ross and Diana Gardner walk along one of downtown Boise’s busiest streets. They're nervous, so they're practicing what they will say if they meet someone without a home.

“So I am doing this survey, and I’m wondering if you know anybody who is homeless or experiencing homelessness…I’ll refine that,” Gardner says laughing.

“Maybe we should introduce ourselves,” Ross says. “Hey, my name is Chloe and this is my friend Diana.”

“How are you today?” Gardner improvises.

This is 2014, one of those January afternoons in Boise where the sun is so bright and low it seems to hurt your eyes wherever you look.

Both say they’re very uncomfortable with the idea of profiling, seeing someone and saying, "That guy is homeless." But that’s kind of what doing this entails.

They spot a man waiting to cross the street and take off at a jog to catch him before the light changes. They cross the street with him and then cross back. The other side is in the assigned area of another pair of volunteers.

“He said he was too busy, so we didn’t want to pressure him,” Ross says.

“Though I wanted to be like, 'Just tell me where you spent the night last night!’ ” Gardner laughs.

Most homeless shelters keep track of how many people they serve. But this count is the only method for determining how many unsheltered homeless live in Idaho.

Each year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) picks a night for the the count. For 2015 it's Jan. 29. In some parts of the country volunteers go out on the designated night, but in Idaho the volunteer counters usually go out the next day.

Most volunteers who do this already work for, or volunteer with, homeless agencies. Ross and Gardner don’t have any experience with homeless people.  They say they wanted to do this to learn more about people whose lives are very different from theirs.

“Every person you meet can teach you something, every single person,” Gardner says. “That’s why I keep calling this an opportunity.”

They’re the kind of people who can say things like that and really mean it. They’re passionate about things like social justice and both have public service careers. They met in a social group for ex-Peace Corps volunteers. They’re earnest and sincere, but also fun and don’t seem to take themselves too seriously.

They skipped lunch so they could leave work early to volunteer for the count; to prepare they had a two hour training the day before. Now they comb their assigned area with clipboards in hand.

The training and all the organization for the count is done by a private contractor working for the City of Boise. The city takes charge of the count for the Ada County region, and a variety of organizations do it for other regions of the state. All of those organizations report to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. It’s a quasi-governmental agency that, among other things, oversees federal money for homeless programs in Idaho. 

Both Ross and Gardner rate the training highly but wish it had included some role play. That’s why they’re doing it on their own as they walk.

They head into a park and approach a man sitting alone at a picnic table. The man is homeless but slept in a shelter last night. So he won't be reflected in the 'unsheltered homeless' number.

He tells them he had been in the army and served in the first Gulf War. He says he’d been bitten by a snake a few months earlier and got very sick.

“So that’s kind of what started his progression into homelessness, is he got bit and then couldn’t go to work,” Gardner says.

“Fired from his job,” Ross adds. “Even though he told them he was sick and had to miss work for a week.”

The numbers compiled last year by Ross and Gardner and the dozens of other volunteers around Idaho revealed something unusual. After three years of declining numbers of unsheltered homeless, in 2014 the number jumped from less than 400 to 636 statewide. Volunteers counted 46 in Ada County.

Statewide results for recent Idaho homeless counts.
Credit idahohousing.com / Idaho Housing and Finance Association

Julie Williams, executive vice president of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, says that jump doesn’t necessarily mean there were more homeless people on Idaho’s streets last year. Williams says the 2014 number is probably more accurate than previous years.

“We believe that last year we had more volunteers engaged in our communities throughout the state, and more law enforcement support for helping those who were out performing the count be in the proper areas and find the largest number of people they could find,” Williams says.

She says there are a lot of factors that impact the outcome of the PIT.

“The strength and the availability of volunteers, the weather, the desire of persons in the homeless community to wish to be counted,” Williams says. “And all of those things are moving targets. It’s not a precise science.”

Williams says everyone who relies on the numbers generated by the count acknowledges it isn’t meant to show definitively how many homeless people there are. It’s a snapshot of a single day. But she says it is valuable because it gives us, at least an idea, of the scope of Idaho’s homeless problem. She adds no one has come up with a better way to estimate numbers for this group of people who are far removed from most of the societal systems that count everything else.

In January 2014 Chloe Ross (left) and Diana Gardner looked for homeless people to survey on Boise's Myrtle Street, Julia Davis Park and Boise State University's student union building.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

As for Ross and Gardner, they knew they might not find anyone to talk to who slept outside.

“I think I might be a little bit bummed [if we don’t find anyone] simply because we’re not contributing to the survey findings,” Gardner says. “But at least the effort would have been made, that’s for sure.”

After two afternoons of looking, the man with the snake bite was the only person who took their survey. They were a bit disappointed, and didn’t sign up this year. But Gardner says she found it personally beneficial because she got an opportunity to learn more about Boise’s homeless.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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