We Have A Trust Problem When it Comes to Homelessness. Better Data Can Help.

Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego.

Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego. Benny Marty / Shutterstock.com

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COMMENTARY | If regions aren’t unified in how they define and measure homelessness, they can’t even begin to tackle the problem. Here’s what we recommend.

Homelessness is a serious problem in San Diego. Unfortunately, it took a Hepatitis A outbreak and the deaths of over twenty homeless individuals in 2017 for local governments in San Diego County to make serious efforts to work together on the problem.

While there is plenty of blame to go around, good leadership on an issue requires honest measurement of how it is being solved—and our research into homelessness services in San Diego County found that unified data collection is the basic first step nobody is talking about

“Homeless,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), means any individual or family who lacks “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes people living in a place not meant for human habitation, such as in a car, under a bridge or in an abandoned building, or in a shelter. According to HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment report, by this definition more than half a million people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S. on a single night in 2018. That probably doesn’t even represent the true number of homeless individuals in America, because if San Diego County is taken as an example, data collection on homelessness is anything but precise enough to make informed policy decisions.

While the HUD definition may not be perfect, it provides a place to start counting. San Diego County’s reported local spending on homelessness services has increased nearly twentyfold in the last decade—and policymakers have no way of knowing for sure whether those public dollars have had any meaningful impact because we lack data on the matter.

By the way, the data we do have show that homeless has gone up in that time.

Late in 2018, we began studying trends in local government spending on homelessness services across cities in San Diego County, home to the fourth-largest homeless population in the U.S. Unfortunately, we ran into a major snag when we found that many cities simply didn’t have the data on their actual homeless population, the types of people experiencing homelessness, and the exact amount of taxpayer money that was supporting homelessness services.

To be fair, these numbers are hard to get. But if we shied away from every hard problem, we’d get nowhere.

Any state or local government employee reading this probably knows that good data (and retaining the staff talent to gather it) is the key to solving most of their pressing issues, from speeding up EMS response times to building better roads. They are also likely aware that many local governments struggle to collect the right data or coordinate data collection among individual cities.

Let’s face it: the money is there, but most municipal budgets don’t address data needs.

The reality is getting precise data is the first necessary step in pursuing long-term and sustainable solutions. Inaccurate or non-standardized methods of simply defining and counting the homeless population, for example, can have a negative impact on public trust. It can lead to misspent public funds or confusion over whether spending on homelessness services is having any effect.

At that point, we’ve helped no one: the homeless family probably stays homeless, and policymakers have abused taxpayers’ trust.

We recommended in our report that cities commit to helping the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless gather the data appropriate for their city, so they can make the right policy decisions. Cities should also agree to start by sticking with the federal standards set by regional authorities—including that HUD definition of “homelessness” we mentioned earlier—and focus on standardized methods for measuring the different types of people experiencing homelessness, such as homeless youth, homeless families and homeless veterans.

In addition, we make the point that it is time to invest in dedicated expertise focused on tracking data and recommend solutions for homelessness. Just like many of the agencies and programs serving the homeless population aren’t specifically dedicated to homelessness issues, many local governments often lack experts whose sole focus is homelessness.

This would be, for example, like a city calling in an interior design agency to fill potholes, or hiring police officers without training or expertise in handling a weapon. Having an expert on hand, who could be in the role and gain years of experience, would make the process of coordinating services—and standardizing data measurement—more collaborative and productive.

Sticking with the federal definitions of homelessness from HUD—at a minimum is an important start to building a multi-year regional action plan that can grow over time. Don’t reinvent the wheel; just make it better and add the nuances you need to make good policy. From there, once best data practices are established, cities should incentivize and reward the partners and contractors who demonstrate their effectiveness.

We are not saying anything earth-shattering, and we’re frankly disappointed that our study uncovered such a simple problem.  Measuring the number of homeless individuals won’t solve the problem, but it will surely tell us if we are going in the right direction.

Haney Hong is the president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting accountable, cost-effective and efficient government, and opposing unnecessary new taxes and fees. 

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