Mark Twain is usually credited with the witticism: “There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He always denied parentage, claiming he got it from the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a claim for which there is no supporting evidence.
Whoever dreamed it up, you can count on government bureaucracies to keep the concept alive.
Take, for example, the recently made claim by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that, since 2007, homelessness in America is down by 15%. And, the HUD report embellishes, for the direst kind of homelessness, “unsheltered homelessness,” people living on the streets or in parks, vehicles, or other places not designated for sleeping, the alleged decline since 2007 is 31%. 2 things about “unsheltered homelessness,” (1) it is concentrated in small towns and rural areas, and (2) this makes this population of people living rough harder to see, and much harder to count.
Details that further undermine the cheery claims of the Federal burocrats include, a statewide count showing homelessness declining over the past 10 years in the state of California, while it climbed by 22% in San Francisco.
In Utah, HUD’s 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress found homelessness across the state had declined by 7% from the year before, and the number of homeless families had declined by 17%. Utah’s State Division of Housing and Community Development, whose data is considered more detailed and better developed than the Federal agency’s, said, exactly the opposite: that overall homelessness in Utah in 2016 was up by 7% and that among homeless families the rise was a dramatic mirror-image of Washington’s count, 17% more, not 17% less.
In recent months, even more sharply focused reports suggest the Federal numbers are wrong. The populations at Salt lake City’s 2 largest shelters hit a recent high of more than 1400, not quite 101% of capacity, and a recent survey of homeless people suggested as many as 20% more than that record-setting number were not counted because they were living “unsheltered.”
2 experts in Salt Lake City homelessness offered no numbers, but the same observation, as cold winter settled in, they were seeing more people camping out in city parks, vacant lots, under bridges and on median strips of city streets than ever before.
What makes these reports specially distressing is that Salt Lake City and County and the State of Utah are regarded as among the most enlightened, pro-active and creative jurisdictions in working to relieve homelessness. But it’s the nightmare scenario, the harder governments and civilian volunteers work, the farther they fall behind.
Our guest today, reporter Christopher Smart of the Salt Lake Tribune, has been covering the homelessness issue in Utah for years, and when he first spoke with us, back in June of 2015, he could proudly state, chronic homelessness in the Beehive State had almost been eliminated. As one state official put it, if the last 178 stragglers who had resisted the State’s offer of free housing would only come in from the cold, chronic homelessness might be considered a problem solved.
Christopher Smart cover politics and social issues for the Salt Lake Tribune, where he has concentrated on the homelessness issue for years.