The Power of Numbers
We often say of a speech, it was inspiring or moving, meaning we had an emotional reaction or even a motivation to take some action as a result of the speech. I believe the same can be said of numbers. Numbers have the power to activate or immobilize.
If I say you have a 50/50 chance of winning the lottery, you would begin buying every lottery ticket you could find. The number motivated you because of the probability of a positive outcome. If I say 30,000 people around the world will die of starvation today, chances are you and I will not do anything differently than we would have not knowing that fact. The number immobilizes because it seems too big, too remote, and there is little we can do to create a positive difference.
Numbers have the same power to inspire or frustrate when it comes to talking about homelessness in Mecklenburg County. If you read the newspaper or watch local news, you have heard so many different reports about how many people are homeless in our community that it becomes almost meaningless to listen, or care.
The Conference of Mayors publishes a report on the number of people who are homeless, as does Mecklenburg County through its “Point in Time Count,” and so does Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. None of the numbers are the same so what is the average person supposed to think? I often get asked to clarify.
At the Urban Ministry Center we use the Point In Time Count which says there are 2,418 people who are homeless in Mecklenburg County right now (January 30, 2013). Of those, 738 are children. All are living in some type of shelter system or are completely unsheltered, living outside. We use the HUD definition of homelessness for this count. This census is repeated every year across the country, with everyone counting on the same day in the same way. So “apples to apples” when comparing year to year.
CMS uses the McKinney-Vento education definition of homelessness and a cumulative number over the course of the entire school year, counting every child who is “precariously housed”, meaning they may be in shelter, doubled up with friends or relatives, or may be staying with parents in a weekly motel. That’s why you often hear there are over 4,000 homeless children in our schools, even though there are only 2,418 homeless people in our county.
Our experience teaches us accurate data is helpful in calling the community to action. Homelessness is complex and challenging, but we know which strategies work to bring it to an end. And we know a majority of the 2,418 homeless people by name. 500-600 come to our campus every day looking for assistance with a basic service, or a next step out of homelessness. Every number we cite represents a person we know, or have met in person; but they are not just a number to us, they are the inspiration and the motivation for our work.
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