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Viewpoints: The homeless that aren’t being counted

Far too many children without stable housing are missed in official counts, masking the problem’s scope.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It was 30 degrees on Wednesday night, and David Putney said it was one of his best evenings in a long time.

Dressed in a padded, mustard-yellow full-body jumpsuit he used to wear when he worked in construction, he was still cold. And he asked whether we could stand above a sidewalk grate to talk. It was about 20 degrees warmer in the cloud of dank grate air.

He had just endured an intimate 10-minute interrogation from one of the volunteers who fanned out across the city in the annual ritual of trying to count the Americans experiencing homelessness on a single night.

“What is your sexual orientation, sir?” the volunteer asked.

“Huh?” said Putney, 64.

“Are you straight? Bi?” she said.

“Oh. Straight. I’m straight,” he replied. And he went on through more questions about abuse, addiction, disease; a comprehensive survey to understand more about the homeless population. When he was done, the volunteers gave him a $10 gift card to McDonald’s for his time. And they even got one of the counselors he has worked with — at 11:30 at night — on the phone to talk with him.

“This makes me feel like I’m not forgotten,” he said.

But this column isn’t going to be all about Putney or guys like him.

The folks sleeping in cardboard boxes, tents and sleeping bags on streets don’t have to answer all the questions Putney answered. Some get hostile about the interrogation. Some just wave the questions away. And I was most surprised that plenty of them — sometimes 50 percent of an encampment — refuse to be counted.

So let’s talk about the ones we don’t see.

Counting the real number of people experiencing homelessness is difficult. There are the folks like Putney, or the residents of the sprawling tent city in a gentrifying part of town who were recently moved out.

They want to be seen, helped, remembered.

But there is also an elusive, vulnerable population in the homeless community that wasn’t counted in the nationwide January survey. They hide, they fudge the truth, they get off the bus at random stops, walk two extra blocks and never hang out with their better-off friends after school.

They’re homeless kids.

And they are gravely undercounted, according to some folks who are trying to change that.

“The situations we hear about are really unsafe: a small child sleeping on a couch, a child sleeping on the floor, Mom’s staying with a bad boyfriend,” said Cara Baldari, who works on family economics for First Focus on Children, a D.C.-based nonprofit group.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development released numbers last month trumpeting a 5 percent decrease in the number of homeless families with kids since 2018 and a 32 percent drop since 2010. The folks at First Focus say that’s baloney.

They contend the number is actually 27 times what HUD says. And that’s not just coming from a bunch of big-hearted social-services softies. The much higher number comes from another federal agency: the Education Department, which counts homeless kids attending public schools.

This brings us back to that cold night this week and why we met guys like Putney.

The folks living in tents and boxes and warming themselves on the grates are counted in the nationwide Point in Time count. It happens on a night in January in cities across the nation. That is the number that HUD uses — paired with the number of folks checked into shelters that same night — to issue its official count.

It becomes the standard most of America uses when talking about homelessness.

Kids who aren’t in shelters are rarely on the streets. They’re tucked away on other people’s couches or floors, in a car or sleeping in a mother’s arms on an all-night bus or train.

Moms might pool together their cash to get a cheap motel room for a night so all the kids will be inside. “We saw one room with 12 kids in it,” one counselor told me.

I talked to a young woman who experienced homelessness for most of her childhood.

She slept on friends’ floors, hooked up with older men so she could stay with them, lived like she was in her 20s when she was only a young teen. But no statistic ever showed her as homeless. She didn’t tell counselors, teachers or friends.

“We got kicked out when I was 11, maybe 12,” said the woman, who is now 21, in her own apartment and working as a teaching aide. Seeking a clean slate, she asked that I not use her name. “It was either me in one room in a shelter with my brothers, my mom and her boyfriend, or me on my own.”

So where do all the kids who have no place to call home at night go during the day? School.

While HUD said it counted 114,829 homeless kids younger than 18, the Education Department reported 1.3 million homeless children in public schools during the same time in the 2016-17 school year. That’s the number 27 times the HUD estimate.

And what makes it worse? The Education Department’s numbers have grown 10 percemt over two years.

So why does this matter?

It goes beyond the outrage of seeing a government claiming success when we’re actually failing American children.

The real crisis is about money. The HUD numbers determine assistance, housing and programs. If the numbers are low, the need for affordable housing looks low. See how the crisis snowballs?

There is legislation to address this: the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 2001). Which, of course, is held up in Congress.

It’s a complicated bill, but mostly it would amend an existing act to fix the HUD count and expand the definition of homelessness. Because a kid who sleeps on a floor one night, on a bus the next and doubled up in a friend’s shelter bed another night isn’t considered homeless in the government’s eyes. This bill would change that.

Thanks to the conversation on that cold night, the District of Columbia government knows about Putney, the guy sleeping outside on a sidewalk near the White House. They know what he needs, who he is and what his circumstances are.

But that night, there were thousands of kids across America who don’t have a home, a room or a bed to call their own, and who stayed invisible to the rest of the country.

It’s time to find better ways to see them.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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