The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time count is one of the few ways our government tallies how many people in communities around the United States are experiencing homelessness. Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless, says the problem is much more complex – and growing.
“We look at homelessness as if it’s something that, okay, we’re going to count the number of people, and then we’re going to house that number of people, and we will have solved homelessness,” he says. “It places the focus away from the structures and systems and…byproducts of insufficiently regulated capitalism that produce it in the first place.”
Healthcare for the Homeless provides support services for people experiencing homelessness. Lindamood has worked with the organization for 30 years, giving him a much deeper view of the problem than any short survey.
The two-night Point-in-Time survey is mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and depends on volunteers to scan city streets and inside shelters, counting the number of people who don’t have permanent places to go. It’s intended to provide a snapshot of how many people are without secure housing. It just took place here in Baltimore from January 22-23.
Last year’s count was conducted in late February. On that night, participants counted 1,597 people experiencing homelessness. Sixty-eight percent of the people counted were men, and 73 percent were Black. A little more than half of those counted were in an emergency shelter at the time of the count. According to the data collected, the number of people without homes in Baltimore City had gone down. But Lindamood has doubts.
He explains that the Point-in-Time count only focuses on people who are sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in transitional housing. That excludes people who could be living on a friend’s couch, or seeking shelter in harder to spot places like abandoned buildings. The count also depends on volunteers.
Once you start to look at the way the data is gathered all across the country, it’s even harder to draw one solid conclusion.
“There’s not really a consistent way that the count is held community to community besides some broad guidelines,” Lindamood says. “At the exact same time, I think it’s entirely appropriate to collect the data year to year. I think it can tell us some things.”
One factor that Lindamood thinks should be included in this kind of data collection is the number of people who are rent-burdened — people who pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent and, as such, are also at extreme risk of homelessness.
“Housing, especially in the private market, has continued to increase, and we’re seeing it continue to increase again, far higher than wages,” he says. “You see people just completely caught in that gap, where they can’t afford market-rate housing, and there’s not enough subsidized housing for them to access.”
The problems with data collection influence the way that data is used by politicians and organizations “to make these sweeping claims that homelessness is decreasing.”
Lindamood says here in Baltimore, leaders are not doing a bad job of addressing the issue of homelessness. But there’s only so much they can do, he says. This is a problem that won’t be solved without federal support. He says Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has been a willing partner in providing aid locally. Scott promised millions in federal funding towards alleviating the problem, but the money has been slow coming.
“We have a housing commissioner now who, unlike previous housing commissioners, has really been focused on homelessness and trying to identify more ways of leveraging the tools that they have to produce housing that’s available to extremely low-income people,” Lindamood said.
“Those tools, though, take an inordinate amount of time when you’re talking about actually structurally creating units that are accessible to those at the very low in the lowest income of that scale.”
Councilwoman Odette Ramos’ inclusionary housing bill (22-0195) is set to go before the city council in the coming weeks. It’s intended to fix problems in a former inclusionary housing bill that allowed developers to bypass requirements that they include more affordably priced housing in their projects. It would also give up to $1,500 a month in rental assistance for housing emergencies.
“Our council has taken housing and affordable housing very, very seriously. So we continue the fight with you. We recommit ourselves to be in this fight with you,” Ramos said to a crowd gathered to mark Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in December.
Lindamood said the fight to end homelessness has always been urgent, and the need is only growing. He says he sees a rise in the number of women who are experiencing homelessness — and that could mean that whole families are being affected.
“We’re poised to see, I fear, growing homelessness among entire intact families that can’t make ends meet. And we know that homelessness rips people, rips families apart, and that so often results in premature mortality,” he says.