Government reports decline in Illinois homeless population doesn’t reflect Champaign County

Volunteers having a meeting to discuss service schedule at Phoenix homelessness daytime drop-in center, which has been opened since July 2014.

By Fatima Farha

In a recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, the number of homeless people in Illinois seems to have declined by 8.9 percent between 2010 and 2014.

According to the report, the homeless population in Illinois decreased from 14,395 in 2010 to 13,107 in 2014.

However, Melany Jackson, executive director at C-U at Home, said it would be impossible to know exactly how many homeless people there are in the state. Jackson said the numbers reported by HUD do not account for all homeless people, and that the numbers will only account for 400 to 500 people, when there are actually many more.

“It’s very clear to those of us who work with the homeless that there are well over 1,000 right here in Champaign County,” Jackson said. “So if you multiply that by all the counties in Illinois you’ll see that the number you have is very, very skewed. You can’t get an accurate count.”

Paul Gallagher, managing director at C-U at Home, also said the HUD reports don’t seem to be compatible with the actual number of homeless people in the local area. Gallagher said in his experience, he has seen that homelessness due to poverty has actually increased, but many of the people are not accounted for in reports such as the one compiled by the HUD.

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    Gallagher mentioned there are many reports from the government that are often skewed because of the numbers the government uses to make these reports. Because of this, he said, even inflation and unemployment numbers are often inaccurate.

    “I see more and more, I think back then in ‘96 we’d see a lot of substance abuse related homelessness and domestic violence. We weren’t seeing much directly related to poverty and income,” Gallagher said. “But now what I’m seeing is a lot more, you know people living paycheck-to-paycheck and just can’t make it anymore and just fall through the cracks.”

    HUD Spokeswoman Shantae Goodloe said the numbers that HUD reports are an aggregation of the numbers from all counties in Illinois.

    “What we report is accurate in terms of what self-reported continuum of cares have told us they have found in the community. It’s based off of information of what they’ve given us,” Goodloe said.

    Kerri Spear, outgoing chair for the Champaign County Continuum of Care, said the reports do appear to be skewed because they are not completely accurate representations.

    Spear said the Continuum of Care is an organization that decides where the federal funding for homelessness will go in the county. If a county wants funding, the federal government requires that the county performs a count of homeless people living on the streets on a given date chosen by the government. The count is supposed to represent the people living in situations unfit for humans, not those living in shelters.

    Spear said the last count was done during one of the coldest nights in late January, when emergency shelters were put up so people would not be out in the cold. Because of this, there were fewer homeless to count on the streets and many of the people in the emergency shelters were reluctant to be interviewed.

    On Jan. 28, the continuum conducted a survey of the county’s homeless population, both sheltered and unsheltered, and found that 222 people in 176 household emergency centers were homeless .

    “So when people say that number is skewed, you’re trying to count people within a certain window of time, and just like any data count, there’s going to be some limitation, some margin of error,” Spear said. “We found a lot of people that were staying in an overnight emergency shelter, but they did not necessarily want to be interviewed so you’re somewhat limited in what you can count or collect because you can’t get all the information that you need.”

    Spear reiterated that there are many conditions that need to be considered when it comes to data collected during such a short amount of time.

    Fatima can be reached at [email protected].