An exact figure for how many people are experiencing homelessness in the United States is hard to come by, writes the New York Times editorial board, making it difficult to define the scope of the problem and identify the areas of highest need. “The federal estimate relies on local one-night-only head counts of the homeless population, conducted at the end of January, that seem almost designed to produce an undercount.” The current federal system, the authors argue, fails to collect accurate and uniform data. “In 2017, for example, the government put the total homeless population at 550,996. That same year, school districts across the country, using a broader definition, reported 1.35 million homeless students, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That number, it bears emphasizing, is just a count of homeless students — not their parents or other family members, and not the rest of the homeless population.” Such discrepancies point to deeply inaccurate methods and a lack of uniformity in homeless counts across the country.
Some localities, like California’s rural Kern County, have adopted “a new, data-driven approach to making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring.” According to the editorial, “it seems to be working.” Earlier this year, Bakersfield announced it had effectively eliminated chronic homelessness in the city. Ending homelessness requires a variety of resources, but accurate information is an important first step, as “better data allows cities to make better use of existing resources.”