A new snapshot of American homelessness finds that some 209,000 people visited soup kitchens, missions and emergency shelters in March 2010, the Census Bureau said Thursday.
About half of these people were young or middle-aged men. Adult women represented about a quarter of the population, and 1 in 5 -- about 42,000 -- were children.
New York and California had the highest number of people using homeless services, while the District was one of 10 cities with the largest number.
The Census Bureau clarified that its special report, "The Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2010," is not a tally of the U.S. homeless population.
There is "no standard or agreed upon definition of what constitutes homelessness," it said. Although the census workers targeted all kinds of homeless services and even certain "outdoor locations," "all people normally at these locations may not have been included in the count," it said.
The new numbers come as the Obama administration pushes ahead with an ambitious "Opening Doors" plan to end U.S. homelessness within 10 years. Its goals are to end homelessness among military veterans by 2015, and homelessness for children, family and youths by 2020, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Nineteen federal agencies are collaborating with states and private groups to provide permanent housing, education and health services to these populations.
The homeless issue has long been bedeviled by questions over the size of its transient, dynamic and needy population. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, policy leaders and advocates argued over whether there were 600,000 homeless or 8 million.
The value of the new census report is that it marks the third time the bureau has taken steps to ensure "that all Americans are counted, regardless of their living situations," said Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Thanks to census data, it's possible "for researchers and the government to understand trends among those experiencing homelessness over the last 30 years," she said.
Policy leaders, however, are now relying on regular, in-depth surveys, such as the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Recent HUD data found 636,017 people were homeless on a given night in January 2011, and that during fiscal 2010, 1.6 million people used homeless services at least once.
HUD data are comprehensive because they are derived from 3,000 cities and counties, and efforts are made to include people who don't go to shelters but live on the streets or in public spaces.
"We use the [Annual Homelessness Assessment Report] data to drive our current strategies with an understanding of long-term trends that can be identified from census data," Ms. Poppe said.
The new Census Bureau report is bound to raise more awareness about the homeless, which is always welcome, said Jeremy Rosen, policy director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Still, given the bureau's limitations, its numbers are "on the lower side," he said. Other data sets are more comprehensive, but even they can define homelessness too narrowly, Mr. Rosen added. When people are forced to live in close quarters with other people because they can't afford their own space, "We think they are without a home and should be considered homeless."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.