For one day in January, hundreds of volunteers spread out across Pinellas County to take a census of the homeless population. But as the deadline nears for the county to report its numbers to the federal government, some say the data collected is flawed and could jeopardize grant funding.
Like Hillsborough County, which sent out volunteers to recount its homeless population after early numbers were improbably low, Pinellas' count has been troubled as well. Organizers said that too few people took part in the census — about a hundred less than last count — making it difficult to find and interview those living on the periphery. And though a phone bank was set up so that families could call in to report themselves, few did.
In letters to the Homeless Leadership Board, which oversaw the count, the executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board has been critical of the way the count was planned and organized.
The data have been compromised by limited volunteer training and little quality control for data collection, wrote Gay Lancaster, who leads the child welfare agency. There also was too little planning time, she wrote.
"We believe the lead time was insufficient for a study of this magnitude and importance to the community," Lancaster wrote.
While the federal government requires a minimum of eight months of planning, Homeless Leadership Board director Sarah Snyder said the board began preparing for the census about six months beforehand.
The data collected had "major holes or errors," according to a homeless board document.
In one instance, under a question asking respondents where they'd slept the night before, people entering the survey information into a database wrote the person's gender.
Fixing the problems has fallen to staff at the Juvenile Welfare Board and data are not yet available. But what is eventually produced will likely come with caveats.
Lancaster said she is especially concerned that this year's data will show low numbers of homeless families and youth, populations that most outreach groups believe are increasing. If the county reports a decreasing homeless population, she said, it could hurt Pinellas outreach groups in their applications for grant money.
"We pride ourselves in being able to tell the community what we can about the status of children in this community," Lancaster said. "We can't accurately report on that particular element of our community — those who are most vulnerable — and we'd like to be able to."
Sending the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development lower numbers would not result in less money for the county, Snyder said. In fact, HUD sometimes awards more funding if counties can show they have decreased their numbers of chronically homeless people and increased the supply of transitional housing.
But it is important, she said, for counties to have an accurate picture of their homeless population. For that reason, the board is planning another count next year, she said. Pinellas missed the cutoff date to ask HUD to approve a recount this year.
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Snyder said that while she is concerned about the lack of volunteers, she did not share Lancaster's worries over training and organization.
This year, she said, they worked with outreach teams to target the encampments and parks where homeless people are known to congregate. The group also got better data on the imprisoned homeless population and sent letters to low-budget motels, asking for their help with the count.
"We made improvements based on the lessons in 2011," Snyder said. "I'm certainly more confident (in the data) than the JWB is."
The number of homeless people in Pinellas — and who exactly is considered homeless — has been a subject of debate for years. And nationally, homeless advocacy groups have voiced concern that the counts are inaccurate and understate the scale of the problem.
In 2011, the last time Pinellas tried to count the number of people in shelters and on the street, volunteers tallied 3,661 people, just over half of whom were living in the shelter system. But most groups who work with the homeless in Pinellas believe the actual figure is much larger.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.