How many people are homeless in Cleveland? In the United States? Statistics abound, but they don’t tell the whole story.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported some statistics that sound encouraging—homelessness decreased by nearly 4 percent over the past year—but that success is widely disputed. Homelessness is often tied to circumstances that constantly change, so it’s not always easily defined. And agencies that help the homeless use different methods to measure the extent of the problem.
Here are three reasons why data on homelessness understates the problem.
It Only Counts Homeless Who Are Visible
The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless releases estimates by counting the number of people sleeping outside in the Central Business District to East 20th St. each year during Thanksgiving weekend.
During the last count in 2012, only three people were identified, a significant decrease from 1998, when the coalition counted 60.
The agency attributes this to better outreach, more people moving to other parts of the community and more available housing made possible by federal and local funding. That includes 450 units of permanent supportive housing in Cleveland and the Metanoia Project at St. Malachi, which diverts people off the streets during the winter months.
Homeless children in Cleveland are also documented by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Project Act, which offers support to young people who live in emergency shelters, with family who struggle to find housing or on their own.
Through June 2013, the statistics showed a total of 3,656 homeless children, 470 of whom were ages 5 and younger. More than two-thirds were “doubled up,” or staying with friends or relatives because they have no permanent place to live.
Cuyahoga County Homeless Services showed more than 6,497 individuals and 1,783 families lived in emergency shelters or temporary housing throughout 2011 and also identified the number who stayed there on an average night.
These numbers are staggering, but they only count the homeless who can be found. They overlook the many “invisible” homeless who take shelter in abandoned buildings, live in cars or move around frequently.
It Doesn’t Always Account For The Near Homeless
Although the data on homeless children does account for kids “doubling up” by staying with friends or relatives, there are many others who are only one crisis away from being without a place to stay. That includes many adults staying in hotels or motels, sleeping on the couch of a friend or relative living in an otherwise unstable situation.
They have a roof over their heads for now, but when tensions are mounting, one personality clash or domestic dispute can leave them on the streets.
This is a group who may be more reluctant to seek help because they don’t fit the traditional definition of being homeless.
It Doesn’t Count Those Who Fear Being Caught
More cities have made it a crime to sleep in a public place, so some homeless are either arrested or actively hiding. Families who lack stable shelter also risk being investigated by social welfare agencies or having their children removed in some cities, so they have a strong incentive to avoid being caught.
Undocumented immigrants, too, struggle in precarious living conditions to avoid being reported. These immigrants and their children, who often move to the United States to find work, may be sleeping on the floor of a crowded, one-bedroom apartment.
Their living situation is far from ideal and can even be hazardous, yet they’re not counted among the homeless.
The Community West Foundation recognizes the importance of all who face poverty and homelessness, especially those who go unnoticed. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to provide basic needs—food, shelter, physical and mental health care—to the most vulnerable populations in Northeast Ohio.
To learn more about how you can support us in that mission, download our free guide, 20 Ways You Can Give to Those in Need with Community West Foundation.