Hidden homelessness: What overnight census of people living on the street misses

A homeless person sleeping in a doorway.
Photo credit PA Images/Sipa USA
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — An army of volunteers will fan out across Philadelphia Tuesday night to count the number of people sleeping on the street. The annual Point-in-Time Count is required for funding by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but advocates note it overlooks a hidden part of the homeless population. 

Bruce Thomas wrenched his back on the job and, within four months, got evicted from the home where he, his wife and four children had lived for 13 years. 

"First, we went to my sister's for a few months. And when we left her house, we went to Delaware, where my wife stayed with her family and I moved back to Philadelphia and stayed in my car," Thomas said. 

Thomas never lived in the street and didn't use the shelter system because the family would have been split up. But he considered himself and his family homeless.

Jason Miller of the Family Service Provider Network says families like the Thomases - that are couch surfing or living in cars - don't get counted, which means many of them don't get services. 

"The FSPN believes it's vital to shine a light on the hidden nature of family homelessness, since the Point-in-Time Count is being used to define the unmet need and shape our city's response," Miller said. 

Office of Homeless Services director Liz Hersh agreed. 

"Street homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg," she added.   

Last year's Point-in-Time Count found some 1,500 homeless children under 18 in Philadelphia; 17 actually sleeping on the street and more than 1,400 in the shelter system.  

But Miller says the school district reported 7,000 students who lacked a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence. 

"Those are children living in our community without the security of knowing where they'll sleep tonight, if they will be safe or whether they'll have a hot meal or dinner," he said. 

Hersh says the city does use other data, but the federal government recognizes only street homelessness and shelter residents for its programs. 

"That's why we've tripled our homelessness prevention (budget) because we understand those needs are tremendous. There's way more needs, obviously, than we can meet," she said. 

Council members Helen Gym, Bill Greenlee and Allan Domb promised to include more money in this year's budget.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mis-stated the number of homeless children in the shelter system.