Federal enumerators ask homeless people basically the same questions they ask the rest of the population, with the exception of those pertaining to how many people live in a residence and whether they rent or own. “They don’t have to answer all of the questions in order for us to count them,” Núñez says. In fact, they don’t even have to give a name or respond to the workers at all to be added to the total count.
Project H.O.M.E estimates there are about 2,800 people sleeping in shelters for individuals, family spaces and overnight cafés on a given night. That’s down from about 4,000 five years ago, a drop Weinbaum attributes to the city’s focus on creating more permanent housing and moving away from temporary shelters.
The federal census results won’t be published until next April, but Project H.O.M.E’s latest count on Jan. 28 found 297 people sleeping outside, 235 in Center City and the rest distributed around parts of North Philly, West Philly, Kensington and the airport. The year-round average for people sleeping outside in Center City alone in 2007 was 425. In 2008, there were 319, and 326 in 2009. The quarterly counts are essential to gauging progress. “We want to know are we making headway; is it getting better, is it getting worse?” Weinbaum says.
Considering the ongoing recession, aggravating unemployment and placing stress on support networks, advocates see the recent numbers as promising.
“We have excellent progress,” says Roberta Cancellier, deputy director of policy and planning for OSH. “One of the goals is to end the need for people to sleep on the streets of Philadelphia.”
Cancellier says that OSH has a 10-year plan with seven goals toward reducing or eliminating homelessness altogether. Mayor Street kicked off the plan in 2005; Mayor Nutter recalibrated it to have a greater focus on commitment to housing.
Besides providing a bed for everyone, the plan strives to integrate health and social services, encourage public and private support for anti-homelessness programs, help with job training and placement and provide long-term support. While it’s impossible for the feds or anyone else to identify every single person living on the streets of Philadelphia, the greater percentage that get counted, the more federal dollars the city will receive.
Instead of following natural geographic, neighborhood, or existing ward boundaries, the lines twist and wander with no apparent logic. Yet there is a clear, cynical and sinister logic behind gerrymandering.