From the Vancouver Sun, a report of some surprisingly good news!

American West Coast cities such as Seattle, Portland and San Francisco have experienced dramatic drops in the number of homeless people on their streets by up to 70 per cent.

Wow, news a 70 percent decline in homelessness—apparently, straight from the mouth of Philip Mangano, the US “homelessness czar”. That’s got to be a big deal, right?

But what makes this news super-duper-surprising is this: it’s false!!

  • OK, maybe it’s not outright false—but certainly misleading, cherry picked, and unduly rosy.

    For example, I looked through a half-dozen reports on homelessness trends in Seattle, and couldn’t find anything near a 70 percent drop. Sure, there was a 5 percent decline in homelessness in Seattle from late 2004 to early 2006, and a 4 percent decline in same-area unsheltered homelessness from 2006 to 2007. That’s quite encouraging, actually.

    But it also misses the bigger picture: there were about 34 percent more homeless folks in Seattle in 2006 than there were in 1999.

    And, of course, there’s an element of chance in each year’s count—it’s conducted just one night a year, largely by volunteers, so weather and random chance can significantly influence the results. Which means that, as encouraging as the recent declines may be, we can’t yet be sure that they’re real. And regardless, the long-term trend is troubling, while the shorter term decline is certainly nowhere near 70 percent.

    In Portland, the most recent count also showed a decline in homelessness that was probably steeper than chance alone can account for. And, in fact, one category of homelessness—“chronic homelessness”—did decline by 70 percent. Part of that drop was likely due to some apparently successful efforts to move people from temporary shelters to permanent housing. (Bully for Portland!) But another part may have simply been the result of a new, more restrictive definition of “chronic homelessness.” From the Portland Tribune:

    Marc Jolin, executive director of the nonprofit Join…cautions against using the latest numbers as a true account of what’s happened on the streets. There were differences in the way the surveys were worded each year, and a more stringent definition for chronically homeless was used this time around.

    As with Seattle and Portland, some recent figures for San Francisco are a source of cautious optimism. Although the city’s homeless count (pdf link) rose a bit from 2005 to 2007 (though perhaps within the margin of error), total homelessness in the city fell by about 28 percent between 2002 and 2005.

    That’s probably good news—though the San Francisco Chronicle had this to say about the 2005 figures:

    The new figures were met with disbelief from homeless advocates who say they don’t square with reality on the streets. And they come at a time when most other counties in the Bay Area expect to report an increase in their homeless populations, leading to speculation that perhaps some homeless people are being driven out of the city by its welfare-slashing Care Not Cash program.

    So in other words, the fall in homelessness within city limits may have been linked to out-migration to neighboring cities, rather than actual progress in getting people off the streets.

    I hope I’m not nit-picking here. The most recent trends in homeless counts do look promising in all three cities. Let’s hope that they’re sustained. And I certainly don’t mean to belittle the efforts of everyone involved in those gains.

    Still, I think it’s deeply misleading to tout a seventy percent decline in homelessness. And while we do no favors by denying that some homelessness trends are promising, we can do actual harm by pretending that the problem of homelessness is nearly solved.