I've been an advocate for those experiencing homelessness for decades. I started back in the 1980's as a volunteer at a local shelter. For years, my mom purchased the food for about 40 people and my kids and I cooked a meal for the residents, one night a month. Fifteen years ago I wrote a book about homelessness as I witnessed it on the campaign trail while running for vice president in 2004. That book, read by a clergyman who ran a homeless shelter transitioned my career from observer and volunteer to full time shelter worker and case manager. For a decade since then, I’ve traveled the nation with another advocate who devotes 100 percent of her time to helping children experiencing homelessness.
Why do I tell you all this?
Because I want you to believe me when I say that what you’re hearing in the news about homelessness being on the rise—and it being California’s fault—is complete poppycock.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a system for counting the homeless that is worthless: utterly worthless. With a nod to bygone days when “hobos” lived along railroad tracks, one night a year—usually the coldest at the end of January—volunteers and housing professionals wander around looking for people with nowhere to live so that they can be interviewed and labeled “homeless.”
Ask yourself a question: If you lived in a precarious situation—especially with children—would you be available for such an interview? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Who gets counted on this one day? Those with nothing left to lose. And according to HUD, in 2019 that number of visible and utterly desperate folks is a little more than 576,000.
So yeah, people living on the street in a warm climate (like much of California has) might be a little easier to find than those who are hiding in the woods, or in an abandoned property, or those who are at work at the time of the count. (Uh, yeah, folks experiencing homelessness work. Who do you think made your cheeseburger or fried your chicken last time you got fast food? Don’t care that minimum wage workforce can’t afford to live in your community? Bon Appetite!)
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Don’t get me wrong—the wildfires in California have forced many people into homelessness and I’ve interviewed a number of them for a more expansive story I’m doing later this year. But that’s not the impression the news stories out of HUD have been trying to give. No, HUD wants you to think that California is a hell hole and its permissive nature has caused it to breed homelessnes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is this: the entire United States of America—both urban and rural regions—is a hell hole with poverty that breeds homelessness.
Shame on the media for not being more diligent. And it wouldn’t take much work either. There are much better numbers that lazy news organizations could be utilizing to tell this story. The U.S. Department of Education keeps a better tally than HUD. They have a different definition for homelessness, but that’s another thing that’s better about the Education Department compared to HUD, now run by Trump appointee Ben Carson. HUD’s definition is as outdated as their method of counting.
See, back in the early twenty-first century, President George W. Bush pushed through his landmark education legislation, “No Child Left Behind.” An Illinois Republican Congresswoman, Judy Biggert, attached homeless education legislation to this otherwise horrible bill and got kids experiencing homelessness the right to go to school. The McKinney-Vento law requires all barriers be cleared away from kids who need an education, even though they don’t have an address that’s paying property taxes into the school system.
The Department of Education numbers are still lower than they could be if an accurate count were kept, but according to their statistics 1.4 million school children experienced homelessness the year before last. 1.4 MILLION! But, what is every reporter from FOX News to NPR saying? They’re repeating the ludicrous statistics from HUD which state that only half a million people are homeless and it’s all California’s fault.
As a person who spends a fair amount of time trying to mitigate the suffering experienced by those without a home, I’d really like to ask the media to do their job properly. Lying about California, the numbers of persons who are homeless, and the causes of homelessness only makes our job as advocates more difficult. And it—quite literally—makes worse the lives of our neighbors on the street, in the woods, stranged in Uncle Fred’s basement, sleeping six to a bed in a fleabag motel, or in some other awful situation.
Want a number to throw around? Take the 1.4 million school kids, add in toddlers and babies, their parents, single individuals, those not enrolled in school and the elderly and you’ll be at a somewhat accurate count of about seven million. And just to be clear: seven million is approximately two percent of the U.S. population. Two percent of our neighbors who need the media to stop lying about them, so the rest of us can work together to make their lives more livable.