WASHINGTON – The 2000 Census counted 2,545 people in emergency and transitional housing in Maryland last year, a number that homeless advocates said represents only a tiny fraction of the state’s homeless.
“We had a family living in a tent last year,” said Jill Moss Greenberg, coordinator of homeless education for Baltimore County Public Schools. “They wouldn’t have been counted.”
Census officials concede that their number does not count all homeless people, but is only a snapshot of one part of the homeless population at a given time.
People who were on the street in March 2000 were counted but were not included in the figures released Tuesday, which only included those in shelters or other emergency housing. The bureau did not release both sets of numbers Tuesday because it feared that might give an inaccurate picture of the true homeless population, a number officials said is almost impossible to get.
“If you were really serious, you’d have to ask questions about homelessness on the Census form and visit shelters over an extended period of time,” said Census spokesman Edison Gore. “It becomes a question of burden. You begin to impose on people.”
The bureau said Tuesday that 170,706 people were living in shelters in the United States on March 27, 2000. Of those, about 60 percent were male and 40 percent were female. About a quarter were under 18 years old.
The age and gender ratios were similar for Maryland.
But advocates said the ratios may be misleading, noting that women and children in domestic violence shelters were not included in the transitional housing numbers.
“They might live in cars or campgrounds,” but would be less likely to stay in the types of shelters that were included in the survey, said Barbara Duffield, education director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. Children would have been missed because two-thirds of homeless children don’t stay in shelters, she said.
Although the Census counted about 170,000 people in shelters nationwide, experts said about 800,000 people are homeless on any given day. Many are not homeless for the whole year, but more than 2 million are homeless during some point in the year, Duffield said.
“A point-in-time estimate misses the full picture,” Duffield said.
While the Census reported 2,545 Maryland shelter residents at a given point in 2000, for example, the state’s Department of Human Resources estimates that state shelters housed a total of 51,917 people during all of 2000.
“Homelessness isn’t a status,” Duffield said. “It’s something that people usually go through temporarily. You have to quantify it over time.”
In 1990, the Census did release the number of homeless people it counted who were not in shelters. That year, homeless advocates and others added the street data to the number staying in shelters to estimate the total number of homeless people.
Bureau officials said they did not release both sets of numbers this time because they wanted to prevent the legal and political wrangling that ensued in 1990.
“We don’t want to produce a count that would be misconstrued as a homeless count,” Gore said.