John Leo

Today, yet another round of inflated estimates is breaking out, this one on the number of homeless veterans. A UPI story a few months back reported that nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.

If so, as blogger Megan McArdle pointed out a few weeks ago on Asymmetrical Information, that would mean that every single homeless person in America must have served in the armed forces, since 300,000 is about the total num­ber of the homeless. The 2000 census, covering people living in shelters but not those living on the street, counted only 170,706 homeless people. The Department of Hous­ing and Urban Development asked cities and counties get­ting federal aid for the homeless to provide statistically valid counts. New York City reported 40,000 homeless, Los An­geles County 90,000,and Chicago 9,600.

The problem here is a familiar one. "Advocates for the homeless," as they are called in the usual press catchphrase, cannot resist passing on wildly inflated numbers. The pi­oneer here was the late Mitch Snyder, a prominent advo­cate, who admitted making up the "fact" that there were "many millions" of homeless in America to give the cause more leverage. The media accepted that estimate for years, though it was surely far higher than the actual number. Now the numbers foisted on the media have soared again. The Department of Veterans Affairs says that some 250,000 vets are living on the street on any given night. Since the department says that number accounts for something like a third of all homeless, this means they are working with a total estimate of more than 750,000 homeless.

This makes the department a piker compared with the Urban Institute and the National Sur­vey of Homeless Assistance Providers, which say, in a joint study, that between 2.3 million and 3.5 million people (and 529,000 to 840,000 veterans) are homeless at some time during the year. The lesson? Don't trust advocacy numbers.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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