Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Managing The Data

For 28 years, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) and Operation Nightwatch have conducted the nation’s longest running and most community-driven annual count of persons experiencing homelessness. This year’s count involved 900 volunteers in conducting a physical street tally of unsheltered homeless people in the early morning hours of a freezing January night. There were 2,631.

Numbers are inherently political. At a time when HUD claims that Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness have reduced chronic homelessness nationwide by 30% — despite rising housing costs, widening inequality, and a relentless assault on federal programs that serve the poor, Seattle’s news this year that street homelessness was up by 15% was especially unwelcome. That number rises to 18% when limited to areas in Seattle that align across the 2007 and 2008 counts.

Nobody wants to see the numbers of homeless people in Seattle rise. This is not news to celebrate. Nor is this news to bury or deny.

Since the creation of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, funding for the One Night Count has come through that body. This arrangement has helped fund staffing for SKCCH. The report used to be produced in Word Perfect. Now, it is a glossy, professionally designed 20-pager.

This support comes at a potential cost. CEHKC has a well-defined interest in showing progress. The count, as opposed to growing homelessness, is viewed by some as a problem to be fixed. At a recent Interagency Council meeting of CEHKC, Director Bill Block clearly indicated that he wants more control over the published report and even the count itself.

SKCCH, he said, puts too much "spin" on the numbers. This from the man who routinely states that the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is on track by counting units "in the pipeline" when the internal documents clearly state that 10YP goals are being missed by half.

This is a case of politics potentially getting in the way of truth. We prefer things the other way around. The take-over of the One Night Count wouldn’t happen without a fight, and we here at Real Change know whose side we’re on.


Sally said...

Interesting that although Bill Bl feels that SKCCH is putting "spin" (as he termed it at the IAC meeting) on the numbers of unsheltered homeless found compared to last year, he didn't consider the CEH's reporting of units produced but not the numbers of units LOST to be spin. I'm not sure how spin is defined by the CEH. Could an example of their definition be "Our numbers are accurate because they talk about success, but your numbers are spin because they show problems"?

Bill said...

I think an easy test of what ought to be said by those of us seeking to end homelessness, including the CEH (providing them with the best of intent), is this: What helps end homelessness better? Lies about reality? Or telling the truth about reality? The CEH could not be on shakier ground if it indeed follows the lead of its staffperson. From what I heard from CEH members, they choose the latter, the truth. It may be time to either remind CEH staff that they are ONLY staff not DIRECTING the plan as the lead person's title has so conveniently escalated, or, if that fails, fire and hire those who can be STAFF and follow the lead of those more attuned to ending homelessness who realize truth not lies must absolutely guide us. What a disservice this Director (sic) is doing to all of us. Shame on him. Be clear. The Plan, while being pissed on left and right by critics and even its purported Director, has a true core value. How it is put into practice is another matter,...

mikemos said...

It should be a felony if politicians are found influencing any aspect of statistics and reports. Or worse, bar them from ever getting elected again. Juries wouldn't feel so bad handing that out and for politicians that's like death.

I finally rented The Wire and thought it was great how they showed the politicians always getting their grubby hands on the city crime stats and how the city suffered for it. In reality it happens with everything: stats, reports, investigations (ok, that's a felony sort of and it still goes on). The drive to get re-elected seems to infect almost all of them.