Governor Scott issued a misleading press release claiming that Florida's homelessness rate declined by 17.5 percent from last year's figures. The press release was written by former DCF Secretary David Wilkins, just before his resignation following the deaths of four children his department failed to protect. Wilkins claimed that the governor should receive credit for reducing homelessness, due to his efforts to reduce unemployment.
This could be dismissed as mere political fluff except that one definition of fluff is "nonsense ... something of no importance or consequence." In this case, however, there are serious consequences for fragile human beings when we knowingly undercount the number of homeless people.
We should begin by looking at the logic behind the governor's chart, which shows 60,168 homeless people in Florida in 2007 and only 45,000 today. It appears that someone may have skipped their Logic 101 classes. Florida's unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in 2007, and today it stands at 7.1 percent. If we followed the governor's logic, we could reduce the rate of homelessness by increasing unemployment.
While there is a correlation between unemployment and homelessness, it becomes clear after getting to know some of Florida's homeless that zero unemployment would not solve the problem. It is much more complex. For example, a 70-year-old former farm worker, whom I met in Hardee County, was physically unable to lift orange crates anymore. Forget a 401K or company pension plan, this man living beside the trash dumpster at the rear of a supermarket received only $120 monthly from Social Security when I met him due in part to the fact that when Social Security was enacted, neither farm workers nor domestic workers were covered.
Moreover, the numbers the governor cites are phony and should not be used by politicians to declare victory. This year I volunteered for our local Point in Time homeless count, and though we found only 216 homeless individuals in Highlands County, we knew from school reports that there were up to 400 homeless children. The disparity between these counts in most counties is too large to be statistically reliable. For example, urban Hillsborough County reported a drop from about 7,300 last year to 1,900 this year.
The reduction is in the number of people found and counted, not in the actual number of homeless people. One reason we know this is that the number of people reporting to be homeless when applying for food assistance is three times the count touted by the governor.
Also, the definitional change of the term "homeless" did not help. In 2012, someone sleeping in a drain pipe would have been counted if you were to have found this person, but a mother and child who had been on the streets, yet slept on a friend's sofa the night before the count began, would not have been considered homeless unless the house was substandard.
Furthermore, the governor's press release did not disclose the fact that 19 Florida counties did not even count the homeless this year. So why did the governor issue a flawed press release based on data this distorted?
There are two possibilities. The first is that he is actually well informed about homelessness, but could not pass up an opportunity to politicize the problem. The second is that he knew too little to question his staff's numbers. From the viewpoint of those trying to help the weak among us, both explanations are frightening.
Jim Upchurch lives in Sebring.