Imagine if Ebola scientists worked the way the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does. If you didn't look like you had Ebola, if you didn't admit to having Ebola, if you weren't in the same room with the doctors when they were talking about Ebola - GOOD NEWS - you don't have Ebola.
Well, good news until you start hemorrhaging out of places most of us prefer to keep water tight -- and really bad news for the people who live around you, especially the children who are gravely impacted by your condition.
Let me put it another way. I'm pretty sure HUD administrators don't tell the riddle, "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound." Because they don't think it's a riddle. At HUD, it's protocol. If nobody's there to hear it, it -- of course -- didn't make a sound, and furthermore it probably didn't fall at all. Frankly, the way HUD counts homelessness; they'd be relatively certain there wasn't a tree to begin with and likely no forest either.
The latest report released by the agency says that homelessness is down 2 percent, but what it doesn't say is that shelters can't call a person homeless anymore unless the person can prove they were homeless. That's a tall order, proving a negative.
It also doesn't tell you that savvy homeless folks don't admit to being homeless. Why would they? There's nothing to gain from it. There's no available government assistance for housing. The Section 8 Housing Voucher Program is what the experts call "oversubscribed." That means there are huge waiting lists, many folks will wait years to get a voucher. Many parents fear losing their children if they go to a shelter or admit to authorities that they are living in their car, storage shed, or the woods.
This past week the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) met in Kansas City, Missouri. Get this, according to HUD's numbers, there were more people attending the conference to help homeless kids learn, then there are homeless people in Kansas City!
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2011 there were 569 homeless school children In Kansas City, and yeah, that number beats the number of attendees at the conference. Furthermore, if you asked anyone of those homeless liaisons if their numbers have gone down since 2011, they'd give you an unequivocal "no." And the Dept. of Ed. would back them up.
See, these guys at the Dept. of Ed., they're more like the Ebola scientists we hope are working on the problem. They sift through the system, testing for homelessness, and treating those afflicted. They don't use limiting definitions or expect people to prove a negative. Consequently they get a much more accurate picture of the problem. And still they fall short. Because many parents live in fear of being judged unfit because they are too poor to provide a home for themselves and their children.
And while the folks at NAEHCY are all about the kids, the problem doesn't stop there.
Last week, before my colleague, Diane Nilan, and I landed at the NAECHY conference we were journeying around the country assessing the plight of the economically disadvantaged. We do this fairly regularly and attach cute names to our travels in order to grab the attention of the local media. We think with media attention we can remind folks that there is a forest, it has trees, they do fall, and - in fact - the sound is deafening.
So during our "Homeless on the Range" tour of the northern mountain states we stopped in Williston, North Dakota. You can't throw a rocky mountain oyster in Williston without hitting an oil well, a fracking rig, or a desperate person from away, hoping to find a job.
In the local Wal*Mart butter can go for $5 a pound and a studio apartment's $1100 a month. The signs advertising a place to park your camper - not a mobile home lot - offered the 30 x 10 foot spaces for $800 a month.
And what about the people who can't afford these prices? There's no shelter in Williston to surrender their numbers to HUD. Some concerned citizens have started renting 10 beds for homeless men from one of the "man camps" started by the fuel companies. These fuel industry folks smartly provide housing to many of their workers, because as Kristin Oxendahl, Community Engagement Director for the Williston Salvation Army, put it, "most folks don't make the six figures necessary to rent a place around here."
And have the homeless numbers gone down? According to Oxendahl, they've quadrupled. But you don't have to take her word for it. In 2013 The Salvation Army of Williston's budget for hotels for the homeless was $1,477.50. This year? $14,006.45. That's not a 2% decrease that's a 10 fold increase.
And the number that's most staggering? The Williston Salvation Army buys bus tickets for folks who fled their hometowns in a desperate search for work, but found they lack the skillsets necessary to work on an oil patch. This year, during this 21st century "Grapes of Wrath" style desperation migration, the Williston Salvation Army has spent $17,983.55 on bus tickets home -- assuming there is a home when the evictees get there.
Worst of all, Oxendahl says, "It can really hurt the elderly. A lot of senior citizens have been living in trailer parks and their lot rent has skyrocketed. A lot are doubling-up or leaving town. They're moving away from their support community to find a place they can afford to live."
Not counting homeless people unless they can prove it. Not counting those afraid to be counted. Not counting the people who are crammed in, three families to an apartment. Not counting the elderly who are forced to abandon their independence and seek refuge away from their life long communities. Shame on you HUD, if you were Ebola scientists, 10 percent of us would be bleeding from our eyes by now.