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Who counts the homeless?

A homeless man sleeping on a San Francisco street.
A homeless man sleeping on a San Francisco street.
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The time has come again to count Austinites, and if you choose to join the count, the Census Bureau is “offering good pay, flexible hours, paid training, and reimbursement for authorized work-related expenses,” according to their Web site. But what about the homeless? Are they included in the count?

Along with the numerous cities using volunteers to trawl the streets, canvass parks, and comb campsites and other public spaces to count the homeless , the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition in Austin,  a conglomerate of social service agencies and local governments, are calling for volunteers 18 years-old or older for the one day event taking place on Jan. 28.

So just how many people are homeless in the Austin region?

The most recent ECHO report, put out through their Continuum of Care subcommittee in 2008, found 3,451 people living on Austin streets or in shelters.

While the Coalition says that " an accurate count is important to procuring federal Housing and Urban Development funds, which go toward low-income housing and other important services for the homeless," the debate over just how many homeless there are has brewed for decades.

Ms. Martha Burt, an advocate of homeless rights with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., told NPR in 2007 that over the myriad surveys and counts of homeless people she's conducted over the years, the numbers are inexact at best. She listed the core factors as:" homeless people are actually trying not to be seen; there are issues of safety; there are issues of weather; there are issues of differences in different parts of the country as to which is the highest-risk season."

And not much has changed in two years.

As a result of methodological and financial constraints, most statistical information of the homeless is restricted to people who are in shelters or are accessible on the streets, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Most information covers only the number of people who use services such as shelters and soup kitchens, often resulting in underestimates of homelessness.

Because of the miscalculation of the amount of homeless, many people who lack a stable, permanent residence have few shelter options -- as shelters are filled to capacity or are unavailable.

A recent study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors
discovered that 12 of the 23 cities poled were forced to turn people in need of shelter away due to a lack of space.

In times of economic turmoil, the number of homeless are sure to rise -- and one of the only ways for HUD to absorb the onslaught is through accurate counts.

For more information on how to volunteer to help count the homeless in Austin and Travis County, visit: www.traviscountyhomelesscount.org/.

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