there are none so blind

Via Les Jones, I ran across a post about the homeless in Chicago that is as misleading as it is infuriating. First, the context:

Contrary to the 80,000 homeless estimate provided by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a census conducted between midnight and 3AM yesterday by hundreds of volunteer counters and city employees resulted in a count of 958 people living on Chicago’s streets. Therefore, over 79,000 homeless people are missing. Or, they don’t exist.

First, he exaggerates the discrepancy to begin with. I did a quick search to find the original source of the 80,000 number. What I found was this:

80,000 homeless individuals in Chicago cannot find permanent, adequate housing, 15,000 in any one night

So, the 80,000 number is an aggregate estimate and has no basis for comparison to the results of the one-night survey. The latter figure is what he should have used. Further, he also neglects to mention that the result of the 3-hour census did not include the ~6,000 homeless currently in Chicago’s shelters, which is included in the CCH numbers. This brings the discrepancy down to 8,000, which is totally reasonable when you are trying to survey a transient population that has a vested interest in not being found to begin with. Did I mention they were only out there for 3 hours?

I asked my friend Nick Hess, Vice President of Mad Housers, an Atlanta-based homeless advocacy group, what he thought:

I participated in doing a homeless ‘survey’. It’s very very difficult to count people who are almost by definition hidden. I’m not terribly surprised that in Chicago in April, they didn’t find many homeless folks at 3am. Not on the streets, anyhow.</p>

In fact, I have the report from the survey right here. The total count in Atlanta, 3/12/2003, including those in shelters and those on the street, was 6,956. Now, let me ask you: it’s 3am in winter. Are you really going to go inside of an abandoned and decaying building, back behind alleys, into the culverts, the woods, the fields, etc, looking for people who don’t want to be found? I doubt it. My partner and I were given two census ‘blocks’ to survey, each of which involved an area of about a half square mile apiece - maybe more, actually, they weren’t dense areas. It translated into many linear miles to travel. And you’re attempting to do it within a couple of hours.

The places where the homeless are most likely to camp are exactly the ones you’re least likely to get out of your car and investigate. I went into a couple of abandoned building and saw some evidence of past campers, but there was no way I’m going to poke around in, for instance, the burned warehouse section that was in one area, covered with debris. I can tell you that we were drastically undermanned for a real count. If they used the same method - and I suspect they did, for reasons I’ll be glad to go into - then they broke it up according to census blocks, which are based upon total population, not square footage.

The homeless survey we were in was performed because the feds have said that they’ll fund housing necessary for every homeless person in your area… but you must actually count the people. So this survey was repeated across the US. Now, they’re asking people to count the most transient, hidden group of people in the US, using volunteers, and without statistical resampling to help correct the numbers for under and overcounts. At 3am. On one hand, it’s a great time to count because most people will be asleep instead of moving from one zone to another. On the other hand, it’s awful, because it’s dark.

The resampling debate came up during the 2000 census, you may remember it. Basically, you take your survey, and ‘tag’ a percentage of your surveyed population - say, 10% of your population. Then you take another, smaller sample and see what percentage of those are ‘tagged’. If you’d gotten everyone the first time around, you’d be very close to 10%. Well, if you’ve got, say, 7.5%, then you’re looking at a total population of 4/3rds of your original count. This is how fish and wildlife people estimate animal populations.

That’s your basic methodology for counting the uncountable. With homeless folks, one question would be: how do you ‘tag’ them?

I’d love to know how many people were sent to canvas the city. I’d like to re-iterate that they spent three hours doing this. Three. Hours. Keep that in mind as I cite the rest of this post:

Based upon the Chicago census of its homeless, The Second Law of Homelessness is supported by empirical data, however, the level of exaggeration by the homeless advocacy groups is grossly underestimated.

Since the advocacy groups use the population numbers when they beg and boo-hoo for funding, the census in Chicago has to be considered bad news. If it becomes common knowledge that they create fantastic exaggerations, funding sources will disappear. And, they should.

Looks like the only one guilty of fantastic exaggeration is mister Interested Participant himself. Although, does a discrepancy change anything? 1,000 people surveyed out on the street in a period of three hours is a lot. 6,000 more in the shelters is a lot. How, exactly, does the difference between 7,000 and 15,000 warrant the disappearance of the funding? It doesn’t.

Les Jones then links to IP’s “laws of homelessness”. Laws of where, exactly? I don’t know – “la la”-land, I am guessing. “La la” as in “the tune you hum to yourself as you avert your gaze and deftly step over homeless people on the street while pretending they don’t exist”.

He then follows up with three quotes, two of which are largely irrelevant:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and thus clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

  • H.L. Mencken

A politician normally prospers under democracy in proportion … as he excels in the invention of imaginary perils and imaginary defenses against them.

  • H. L. Mencken

These quotes certainly offer bits of wisdom that are applicable often enough in the context of our government (imaginary hobgoblins, eh? Weapons of Mass Destruction, anyone?), but certainly not here. I don’t know about you guys, but I haven’t seen any hysteric news exposes about the homeless crisis on any of my local news affiliates lately. I don’t think something can qualify as a scare-tactic if it’s about a problem most people don’t care about or pretend doesn’t exist.

The last quote, though, made me angry:

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.

  • H.L. Mencken

You run across this attack a lot from conservatives criticizing the so-called (nonexistent) “welfare state”. If anyone, anywhere, does anything remotely charitable, it’s obviously out of selfishness – desire for power, or smug superiority. This train of thought is a window into a deluded world where acts of charity or compassion are so foreign that they must be a facade for more sinister goals. But it’s also a convenient excuse to sit back and do nothing. Charity is eschewed and (as we see here) actively opposed in favor of throwing blame or “preserving dignity”. But there’s nothing dignified about begging for money and sleeping on the street.

You can sit back and do nothing, if you want, but accusing people that try to do something about it of acting on an “urge to rule” is despicable and pathetic.