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Varying definitions confuse counts

Posted: Sunday, November 01, 2009

The homeless are inherently hard to track, and varying definitions further confound counts.

Alaska had the 10th highest number of homeless people per capita out of all 50 states in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2009 annual homeless assessment report.

The report found 1,646 people homeless, about a quarter of 1 percent of Alaska's population. Of that figure, 1,452 people were counted as sheltered and 194 as unsheltered. In Juneau, HUD counted 186 people as homeless.

According to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.'s one-night January count of homeless for 2009, the number in Juneau is 403.

"There are some tricky aspects to the homeless count," said Scott Ciambor, co-chair of the multi-agency Juneau Homeless Coalition. "Direct service providers and other members of the Juneau Homeless Coalition will tell you that this number is low based on daily experience."

Ciambor said the count could be from 2 to 2.5 times higher.

Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk of The Glory Hole shelter estimates the number of homeless in Juneau at close to 1000. A recent statewide count tallied 661, she said, but that number excludes wards of the state such as prisoners or homeless youth.

Dan Austin, general manager of St. Vincent de Paul, estimates there are about 700 homeless people in Juneau.

Most agree that someone without a safe, permanent place to sleep is homeless, but the specifics are harder to pin down. For example, if you're at a friend's house couch surfing, are you homeless? If you're in a hotel? Transitional housing? Foster care? Juvenile detention or prison? In a tent in the woods?

The Juneau School District, which counted 165 homeless students in the last academic year, defines a child as homeless if he or she is

• "doubled up," that is, temporarily residing with friends or relatives due to lack of permanent or affordable housing;

• unsheltered (in a car, trailer, campground, etc.);

• at a hotel or motel due to lack of permanent or affordable housing;

• living with "inadequate conditions," defined as overcrowding or a having a lack of heat, electricity or water;

• in a shelter; or

• couch surfing.

The last category most frequently fits high school students, who sometimes move between friends' or relatives' homes.

Federal law defines someone as homeless if they lack a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," or someone who has a primary nighttime residence that is:

• a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);

• an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or

• a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Definitions change depending on "political winds," said Austin.

"A lot of the children that are homeless are going to be sleeping on a relative's floor tonight," he said.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.



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