We released South Carolina’s “point in time count” of people who are homeless last week and as usual, I am little ambivalent about the accomplishment. On the one hand, it astonishes me that a volunteer driven effort can tackle difficult social research so effectively. This year, 700 people fanned out across the state to personally interview each person they could find who spent January 24th in a shelter or in places “not meant for human habitation” like cars and camps and parking garages. The results, in terms of reach and coverage were the best in ten years especially the push to reach people in rural areas.
The numbers are disheartening. Over 6000 people were found to be homeless, and HALF of them were unsheltered—that is living on the street. Almost a third of them were homeless for the first time. Twenty seven percent were experiencing homelessness as a family. This is troubling by any measure.
What disturbs me beyond the results is that these numbers will be the most (probably only) cited data in dozens of grants, local needs assessments and federally required local and state government plans for the next year, or until they are replaced by new PIT data. Across the state people will talk about the 6035 homeless people in SC. And that is a disservice to the thousands of people who shared their story in January, and those who couldn’t.
The point in time is a one day count of homeless people. One day.
I don’t think that General Motors decides how many cars to build based on a single day of sales. I hope, the Army Corps of Engineers does not recommend the building of levees based on a single day’s measure of sea level. And we’d be in trouble if medications were produced to meet one day’s incidence of any condition.
The stakes are too high in all of these examples to limit analysis to a data snapshot which, by definition, will distort the picture and inhibit good planning. The PIT distorts, under reports and discounts the complexity of homelessness. People who are chronically homeless are more likely to be homeless on a particular day and can be over-represented in PIT courts. People in rural areas are less likely to be counted because there are few services in rural areas which is where we look for homeless people.. Families are undercounted because they cope with homelessness by doubling up which is not counted in the PIT. And of course, by definition, a PIT would miss people who become homeless after January 24th. All of their experiences matter.
So yes! Data are critical for planning but there is plenty of data to help us understand the factors contributing to homelessness. We know that over 16% of our state (20% of our children and youth) live in poverty, making them vulnerable to homelessness. We know we have higher than average rates of people with disabilities. We have a high rate of uninsured and we know that our wages do not support affordable housing. So let’s invest in the long term planning and start implementing solutions like increasing the stock of affordable housing and expanding Medicaid coverage. And let’s treat the PIT for what it is, a snapshot, and the tip of the iceberg.