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Why homeless kids are harder to count

A homeless child waits for his bus as he looks out at others boarding at the Community Partnership for the Homeless assistance center in Miami, Florida.

The Urban Institute released a report this week on new techniques for counting homeless youth. While there are lot of charities and government organizations that want to help homeless kids, no one has figured out how to count them accurately.

Why is it so hard to keep track of homeless youth?

"Homeless people in general are difficult to count," says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “because they don’t always want to be counted and because they’re not living in places where it’s easy to count them."

So how do you fix the problem if you don’t know how big it is?

“Well, exactly,” says Roman, “we’re not fixing it.”

The difficulty arises in part, because you might not recognize a homeless young person as homeless.

Ariel Zwang, CEO Safe Horizon, which runs a shelter for homeless young people in New York, says some homeless youth can blend in, in a variety of ways. Some go to school, some couch surf or even sell sex to stay off the street.

“Young people are sleeping on the A train, or sleeping in a park, or spending the night at the Apple store,” she says.

It’s the survival strategy of seeming invisible which can make homeless youth understandably difficult to count. And that lack of clarity on numbers means programs that could help are often left underfunded.  

The Urban Institute report recommends involving youth volunteers and schools in counts, as well as reaching out via social media.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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