Tucson’s homeless population shrunk slightly over the past year, a recent survey showed.
The 2014 annual street count organized by the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness identified 2,110 people as homeless, down from last year’s count of 2,238.
Advocates for the homeless attributed a portion of the decrease to social service agency efforts to address the problem.
While the numbers are down, those advocates believe regulations governing the annual survey include a feature that results in the homeless population being underestimated every year.
The count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and is used to determine how much federal money for homeless services the region receives.
HUD’s definition of homeless is highly restrictive, said Ricardo Fernandez, homeless youth services program manager at Our Family Services.
For instance, if someone is in jail or a hospital, or slept on someone’s couch the night before, HUD prohibits him from being classified as homeless.
“There are a lot of those people that had to be cut out because they didn’t fit the HUD criteria,” Fernandez said.
He estimated about 500 surveys had to be discounted due to the restrictive definition of “homeless.”
As an example of how HUD’s rules affect the numbers, Fernandez pointed to homeless children.
This year, the count identified 445 children who were homeless, up from 397 the prior year.
But school districts, which do their own counts of homeless students using their own criteria rather than the HUD standard, report much higher numbers.
The Tucson Unified School District classifies about 2,000 of its students as homeless, Fernandez said.
Amphitheater Public Schools has about 500, he said.
“What the (count) captures is the most at-risk segment of the homeless population in Tucson. It doesn’t provide a picture of everything,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said counters will apply various statistical methods and implement other changes next year to get a broader picture of Tucson homelessness.
Last January, more than 200 volunteers fanned out across Tucson to count homeless living in shelters, the street or the desert.
Agencies received about $8 million in HUD funding for 2014.