City tries new approach to counting homeless

Though Yale has sent out e-mails, posted fliers and hosted study breaks to coax students into completing their 2010 census forms, New Haven may not have a strategy in place to count all of its homeless.

This year, city officials are trying a different approach to counting the homeless, which student organizers Joe Breen ’12 (a staff photographer for the News) and Gabriel Zucker ’12 said would be more humane while still accurate: Instead of going into tent cities and waking the homeless up, city officials said they are heading to places the homeless frequent, such as soup kitchens and shelters. But community leaders said it is impossible to have a flawless counting system when dealing with the homeless because it would be too expensive.

Zucker, a co-coordinator for the Dwight Hall group Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, said that last year’s New Haven homeless estimate was about 700, and city officials expect the number to be higher once workers have gathered all the census data. But Breen said counting the homeless is a complex process wrought with challenges and city efforts may be falling short of accurately counting the homeless this year.

“Obviously, we’re not going to say now that we have an accurate number [of the homeless],” Zucker said.

City Plan Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75, who said the city helped encourage the homeless to participate in the census by manufacturing beanies that read “Census 2010,” added that accuracy is ensured only when census workers count the homeless in tent cities and the streets.

Breen said he believes that census workers now have missed certain homeless altogether in their count because they did not go to tent cities. Still, census officers may not want to release the locations of all the tent cities in which they counted people because many of these dwellings are illegal and could be shut down by City Hall if publicized, Gilvarg said.

But hiring census workers to look into every potential place where the homeless might be would “cost a fortune” and is not politically feasible, City Plan Commission Chair Edward Mattison LAW ’68 said.

And inaccuracies are inevitable in such a large count, said Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Since census workers count most citizens through mailed-in forms or by going door-to-door, there are obvious problems with attempting to count the homeless, such as counting the same person twice or not counting everyone in the streets.

“People would come to the soup kitchen and say, ‘I was counted at the homeless shelter last night, and the enumerators would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. They need you to fill out another,’ ” Breen said. “I think they were wrong in telling those people that.”

Double-counting could be a deliberately manipulative effort to bring resources to one soup kitchen or an honest misstep that will even out in the total number of homeless counted because of undercounting, said Carol Shomo, the chief executive officer of Youth Continuum, a New Haven shelter for homeless youth.

Overcounting occurs less often than undercounting by an “order of magnitude,” Mattison said, adding that undercounting is more likely because of the number of places census counters do not think to look: people who “couch surf” and stay in friends’ homes, or people who live under bridges or in abandoned buildings.

George Roebuck, the head of New Haven’s census office, said he was unaware of either double-counting or undercounting happening during the count. He said that census workers use “verification” processes but that he did not know how workers could prevent homeless people without identification from filling out the census card twice.

Comments