July 26, 2008

SF Report Unmasks Overhyped Nationwide Homeless Numbers

Note: This column originally appeared here at Pajamas Media on Thursday morning.

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A civil grand jury in San Francisco (which readers should understand served as an advisory group and was not associated with any court case), recently found (PDF) that “The Homeless Have Homes, But They Are Still On the Street.”

In its detailed report (PDF), it also inadvertently revealed just how wildly overestimated typical statements made by the media and politicians about the degree of the homelessness problem in the US really are.

Among other things, the group found that most of the homeless have a city-funded home. This would mean that they’re not, well, “homeless.”

In an SFGate.com column about the report, C.W. Nevius noted that city officials agree (bold is mine):

The mayor and others are now admitting what the grand jury reported – that a majority of those on the streets are not homeless.

The head of the city’s homeless program, Dariush Kayhan, estimates that 50 to 75 percent of street people live in supportive housing.

“We just warehouse addicts,” said the grand jury’s Stuart Smith. “Granted, it is a nicer place for them, but it doesn’t address the problem.

The grand jury’s detailed report also says that:

….. the city is now spending $186 million a year on homelessness, six times what was spent in 1993-94.

That astonishing amount is nowhere near the whole story. The group further noted that the $186 million “excludes the cost of County Adult Assistance Program welfare grants, emergency medical response, hospitalization, jail costs, most city management and overhead functions, and much else.” That is, the true cost, if it could be determined, would come in a lot higher.

A bit of number-crunching shows just how out-of-control the city’s homeless program spending really is:

  • The report says that the city had 6,377 homeless in 2007 — a decline, by the way, of 26% since 2002.
  • The direct costs alone to the city per homeless person are ….. (sit down) ….. over $29,000 a year.
  • Yet, Nevius reports that not much has been accomplished beyond the “warehousing” noted earlier. In fact, people are still asking, “….. can’t someone stop the panhandling? And, given all the programs and services, is it unreasonable to ask those who are being given supportive housing to start making some effort to be self-sufficient?”

This is San Francisco we’re talking about, so that question is up in the air.

Before citing the cost figure, Nevius made an amazingly presumptive statement that should not be overlooked:

In short, the jury is reflecting the views of many San Franciscans who made the choice to live here. They understood that housing and taxes would be higher, and so would the cost of a meal in a restaurant. They understand and believe that the city needs to provide for its poorest homeless residents and don’t begrudge (the $186 million cost).

It’s safe to say that many of the nearly 350 commenters at Nevius’s column (as of early Tuesday morning) aren’t as accepting of the city’s high cost structure as the author is.

But what’s really important to the discussion of the US homelessness problem is how the grand jury’s report makes the nationwide homeless population figures routinely quoted by homeless advocates look utterly foolish:

  • Ignoring the “homeless aren’t homeless if they’re in ‘supportive housing’” argument, the 6,377 homeless San Francisco County, a nationally-known magnet for the homeless, represent 0.86% of its population of 744,000.
  • But the Wiki entry on homelessness in the US notes that “Most, though not all, advocates use ….. (a nationwide homeless) estimate of over 3 million, especially since homelessness is thought to have risen since 1996.”
  • That estimate of 3 million effectively asserts that the rest of the country has a higher homelessness rate (0.98%, which would be 2.994 million divided by about 304 million, excluding the County by the Bay) than San Francisco. That’s obviously unsupportable and absurd.
  • Even the low-end estimate at Wiki (1.58 million, or 0.52% of the US population) is more than likely way, way high. To believe that, you would have to believe that the prevalence of homelessless in the rest of the US is 60% (0.52%/0.86%) of that occurring in San Francisco. I’m not buying that for a New York minute.
  • Finally, if we go back to what was discussed at the beginning of this post and exclude those who are in “supportive housing,” it is more than a little likely that under that definition — the one San Francisco city officials are buying into — there are no more than a few hundred thousand homeless in the entire country.

Yet the media and policymakers routinely treat advocates’ self-interested nationwide homelessness stats of 1.5 million – 3 million as gospel, and base funding decisions on those ridiculous numbers. It’s long past time to get back to reality-based figures — and to adjust funding and services so that they not only match and address the real degree of need, but also put a stop to the “warehousing” mindset.

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