By THEODORE DECKER
A study showing a 4 percent drop in the number of homeless people in the United States was heralded by federal officials yesterday, but local homeless advocates say Franklin County’s problem is much larger than the report reflects.
Using numbers collected by more than 3,000 communities on a single day in January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said there were 610,042 homeless people in the United States at the time of the counts, down from the 633,782 people counted in the same manner in 2012.
The number of homeless veterans was down by 8 percent to 57,849. And the number of chronically homeless people dropped 7 percent, as did the number of people in homeless families, the federal report said.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said the drops were “steady and significant,” and in part due to government programs implemented in the past three years.
But Barbara J. Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, warned that proposed federal budget cuts threaten that success.
“It’s too soon to celebrate,” she said.
Franklin County’s numbers, gathered on Jan. 24, weren’t inspiring celebrations.
Advocates counted 1,488 homeless people - those in shelters and on the streets - in the county, a 4 percent increase over 2012.
That count also showed 148 homeless veterans, an increase of 11 percent.
Kent Beittel, executive director of the Open Shelter, said the “point-in-time” survey is a bureaucratic folly.
“The fact that we’re required to do it in order to get federal money into Columbus is its sole purpose and its sole value,” he said. “As a planning tool, it should be completely ignored.”
Beittel keeps his own numbers. The Open Shelter, on E. Mound Street, helped about 180 people daily last month. Of those, nearly 80 were reporting that they had slept outside the night before, he said.
He said he has argued for years that the number of people in Franklin County who are living on the streets is probably 700 on any given day, not the 244 recorded in the 2013 count.
“If the numbers really are going down nationally, that is a truly sad statement about Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “There are more people homeless in Columbus, Ohio, than there have ever been, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years. There are more men and women living on the streets in Columbus than there are beds.”
That will change in the spring, when the Community Shelter Board opens a shelter that will eliminate waiting lists for beds year-round, Executive Director Michelle Heritage said.
“Homelessness in this community is going up and up and up,” she said.
To conduct the yearly counts, local advocates historically have gone to the homeless, checking under bridges, counting heads at shelters, and visiting tent cities.
This year, the homeless came to them.
The Community Shelter Board set up the count Downtown at Veterans Memorial and spread the word. Homeless people who came were offered a range of services, from health care to toothbrushes, depending on their needs.
Ken Andrews, an advocate for homeless patients for Mount Carmel Outreach, thought the new arrangement was a great way to combine the count with direct aid to the homeless population.
“You had the clients coming to you, instead of you trying to find the clients,” he said.
But he agreed that the numbers released by HUD don’t capture the scope of the homeless problem: outstanding criminal warrants, mental-health issues and pride are just a few reasons that some stay away.
“Those people you are not going to collect in that net,” he said.