Monday Morning Thoughts: Why We Probably Can’t Believe Any Homeless Stats

In the last few weeks we have been debating the statistics of homeless people, but as today’s column from Marcos Breton demonstrates, maybe we can’t believe any of it, because the data collection methods are flawed and inadequate.

The debate started over local supportive housing at places like Paul’s Place.  Many believe you need to get people off the streets and into housing before you can begin to treat other problems.  But still others oppose such housing, believing that the homeless need mental health treatment before they can move into stable housing.

However, Paul Thornton of the LA Times wrote a few weeks ago that “most individuals who experience homelessness don’t end up that way because of mental health issues or addiction.”

But not everyone or even every survey agrees with the data that the LA Times Editorial Board came up with, that only about one-third of the homeless suffer from serious mental illness.

Some cite a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) study that found, “An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.”

But the HUD study, based on data from January 2010, not only may be dated but like many is known as a Point-in-Time Count and it found that on a given night about 26 percent of sheltered homeless adults had a severe mental illness and 34.7 percent suffered substance abuse.

A big point that I would argue – it seems unlikely that the rate of mental illness in the overall population has changed drastically since 2010.  And yet we know that the number of homeless has vastly increased – that is the number we need to understand better to see what’s driving the homeless problem.

As we look at the Marcos Breton column, we can start to see the problem with measuring the homeless problem.

Marco Breton points out, “You can’t believe the numbers fully. You certainly can’t take them at face value.”

He writes: “When you do take the latest federally-mandated homeless count numbers at face value, they seem shocking. One wonders what the devil Sacramento is doing about homelessness when Sacramento is committing millions to the problem.”

The current count finds that homelessness has jumped by 52 percent in Sacramento County over the past two years.  I think we have reason to believe that the number has gone up – but by that much?

Mr. Breton demonstrates why we should be skeptical not only about the current numbers but about data in general – especially, point-in-time counts.

A big factor here is how you count the homeless.  And the big change is that they had 600 more volunteers counting the homeless this year as opposed to two years ago.

In 2017 it was 300 people, now it’s 900 people.

As he points out, “there is a pretty good chance all those extra counters are gong to find extra homeless people to count.”  Indeed, “This year, unlike past years, counters also canvassed more parts of the county. And they relied more on statistical estimates to gather numbers from areas in the county they did not canvass.”

He points out that this was based on a “snapshot” of one 24-hour period in January.  Mr. Breton writes that “this count is seen as the closest to accurate that Sacramento has ever done, which means that past counts have been far less reliable.”

Given the more accurate count this time, the 52 percent jump is probably an artifact, at least in part, of the better survey method.

But there are more than just flaws in the numbers, as Mr. Breton pointed out, as “what’s even more flawed is the amount of critical information that we don’t know and is not disseminated in the current count.”

A bigger problem is getting a statistical profile of the homeless.

Mr. Breton argues that “if you ask experts on homelessness for a detailed statistical profile of homeless people, the answer is that we just don’t have enough critical data.”

The report in Sacramento, for instance, finds “only nine percent of homeless surveyed said drugs or alcohol prevent them from keeping a job and stable housing.”

He asks, “Does that sound right? It doesn’t to me.”

I tend to agree with that.

Further: “About 21 percent reported having a severe psychiatric condition, which also seems like an under count.”

He adds, “About 45 percent of homeless respondents said Sacramento needed more affordable housing. OK, but that’s a point that most everyone probably believes.”

Mr. Breton further writes: “Is there hard data on how many Sacramento homeless are homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent? Not really. This is not to disparage the 2019 homeless count or the people who worked on it. But this count is too often confused as definitive when it’s not.”

He concludes: “Without the data, we’re flying partially blind when it comes to confronting the crisis of getting people under roofs and off the streets. How can you cure a disease if you can’t adequately diagnose it?”

On this point, I completely agree.  We’re throwing around survey data, whether it comes from HUD or the LA Times, that might not be telling us as much as we hoped.

One piece of data does seem to be more reliable. Mr. Breton writes that “93 percent of the homeless people surveyed in January said they were from this county. This debunks a myth sometimes floated by some, including me, that Sacramento County is a magnet for homeless people.”

He adds, “Given that the current count of homeless is the most robust ever done, the 93 percent of homegrown homeless should speak to us all that this is our problem to solve. These are county residents. We can’t just leave them on the street or put them on buses to Roseville.”

I come back to this point: I believe the number of homeless people has increased in recent years.  I don’t believe that a rise in mental illness or addiction explains that increase.  And thus I believe affordable housing is a factor.

Beyond that, I don’t think we really know as much as we should about the homeless problem or how to fix it.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts


  1. Alan Miller

    I agree with much of this article.  This I do not:

    1)  You could have left well enough alone, but had to go with 93% are local.  They are now.  I don’t know and you don’t know, but again you are going with very high numbers that happen to agree with your narrative that providing services doesn’t attract more.  This goes against logic and wisdom, but go ahead and argue the opposite.

    2)  Affordable housing is fine with a small “a”.  Subsidized housing just distorts the market and ultimately results in less working poor able to afford housing and more money in government salaries and bloated programs that could have gone to housing.  It’s simple economics, but that too is as uncommon today as logic and wisdom.  But subsidized housing is the RAGE today.

    3)  I don’t agree that we need good numbers.  The numbers are impossible to pinpoint accurately by the very nature of the issue, and always will be.  We need to meet the needs of the mentally ill, we need to give assistance to those that have fallen on hard times, and we need to offer recovery services to the addicted who are ready to walk in the door.  We can be concerned about numbers when the demand doesn’t vastly outstrip the availability of services.

    1. David Greenwald

      Appreciate your response.

      On the first, I don’t know if it’s 93%.  I do know that LAT found something similar in LA and Robb Davis and other local activists argue similarly high numbers in Davis.

      On the second, I’ll leave it at agree to disagree.  But I think a key point is that there are multiple ways to skin the affordability cat.

      On the third, there I disagree.  I think we need (A) better numbers and (B) better underlying numbers to understand the nature of the problem in order to solve it.  Should we be focusing on housing or services?  Perhaps the answer is yes.  But we need to know how much.

    2. Eric Gelber

      Alan is right that accurate numbers aren’t necessary to know that there is currently a substantial unmet need for housing and services.  But an accurate count is necessary. It’s needed to track progress and measure program effectiveness. It has implications for the allocation of federal and state resources, including Section 8 vouchers, for example. And for the census, there are implications for representation.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Valid point Eric… but am highly skeptical the 2019 Sacto census will count, unless a similar one is done in 2020 for the official Fed Census (to their standards), as for as your points are concerned.

        All the more reason for every part of the State to make sure the census takers reach ALL the folk in CA!  Housed or not…

        I’ll volunteer to do the local homeless piece, but could probably use a ‘buddy’ so they know I’m legit…

    3. Bill Marshall

      Alan… don’t disagree your main points, but,

       I don’t know and you don’t know, but again you are going with very high numbers that happen to agree with your narrative that providing services doesn’t attract more.  This goes against logic and wisdom, but go ahead and argue the opposite.

      My experience meeting a lot of the Davis homeless is they’re not plugged into “services”… maybe 10 -15 %… that’s not the attractant… it’s more likely the relative wealth in town, and liberal/tolerant folk who give cash to anyone with a cardboard sign and a “poor puppy” look… people need to stop that… I’ll buy someone a meal (no cash), or help direct them to services… but NO CASH!

      Even ‘Roma’ know Davis’ rep, drive to Davis in their  late model SUV’s, and bring their cardboard signs… I’ve see others that do that, driving to Davis (overheard them talking about getting back to Sacramento by a certain time) putting their expensive looking purses, etc., in their car, grabbing their cardboard signs, and ‘going to work’.

      If we could get everyone (or even vast majority) to NOT GIVE CASH, and redirecting them to services (or feeding them directly), that would go a long way towards stopping the growth of the problem, and could even reduce it.  Giving cash to someone “using”, or MI, where they can’t manage money and may “self-medicate” is probably the cruelest thing someone can do… doesn’t ‘help’, and can just add to a downward spiral…

      The effect of “services offered”, from what I’ve seen and heard, is de minimus as an “attractant”.  Having a pretty affluent community willing to hand out cash is a pretty strong attractant.  Particularly for those “using”.

      1. Alan Miller

        WM, agree on the NO CASH.  But similarly, if no one ever responded to phone solicitors, we would not have spam phone calls.  This will never happen, just as those giving cash will forever doom the downtown to beggars, from local and out-of-town.  “Well Meaning” Davis citizens with heads so soft they need a helmet just to walk down the sidewalk.

        I have a friend who’s been homeless on-and-off  for over 30 years, and is a Davis townie.  He says this new crew that’s shown up over the last ten years are most all out-of-towners, and the old-school local crew don’t like ’em one bit.

        1. Bill Marshall

          I believe what you’re saying Alan… not only that probably half the folk down by Nishi are “newbies” 5 years or less…

          But I also hope you understand that few of them came to town for “services”…

          I reluctantly agree I’m urinating into the wind to honestly think folk who give cash won’t continue to do so… but, like the voice crying out in the wilderness, will continue to say that their behavior might assuage some of their guilt “in the moment” but does nothing to “help”, and actually can contribute to “harm” to those they purport to ‘help’.  A form of hypocrisy, as it were.

          I hope your friend can connect with appropriate services, to change his/her situation, if that is something they want/need.  A good person/friend is a terrible thing to waste.  But all any of us can do is try/facilitate… they have to cross the threshold.

  2. Rik Keller

    As I pointed out previously, the LA Times Editorial Board article misrepresented the very data they cited. And the Vanguard then compounded that error by uncritically repeating that same misrepresentation.

  3. Rik Keller

    Why does the Davis Vanguard do such a bad job of reporting this subject? This statement from Greenwald ” I believe the number of homeless people has increased in recent years” is wrong. Here is actual data summarized from one of the main advocacy organizations (based on the annual HUD point-in-time counts), the National Alliance to End Homelessness:

    * “However, national counts have generally trended downward over the last decade. Since 2007, the year HUD began collecting this data, homelessness decreased by 15 percent. This number masks more substantial subgroup progress over this time period. Most notably, veterans’ homelessness has dropped by 38 percent since 2007. Amongst people in families, there has been a 23 percent decrease. And chronic homelessness among individuals has fallen by 19 percent.”

    * “State-level trends mirror those at the national-level. Thirty-eight states have realized decreases in homelessness since 2007.”

    * Homelessness rates in California have dropped 6% from 2007-2018

    And this statement contradicts what Greenwald is saying:
    “What Causes Chronic Homelessness? People experiencing chronic homelessness typically have complex and long-term health conditions, such as mental illness, substance use disorders, physical disabilities, or other medical conditions”

      1. Rik Keller

        Eric: yes, PIT counts likely do underestimate overall counts. But they are the best longitudinal data we have, and the stats show that homelessness rates are declining in the past 12 years (even with improvements in PIT count methodology over that time period)

        The reason that the Vanguard and others are trying to downplay the role that mental health issues and substance addiction have on homelessness (especially chronic homelessness) is that they are pushing for housing development in general as a solution—it’s just a pretext.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Homelessness rates in California have dropped 6% from 2007-2018

      That’s a percentage of a percentage, right? So if the homeless rate in 2007 a 5% (just for example) it’s now down to 4.7%.  Truly impressive!

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for