You can’t compare apples to oranges, so if I throw the orange away and give you only the apple, don’t complain.
This is one of the main messages I get from the report of this year’s point-in-time count of the homeless population in King County. Actually I don’t believe they’ve thrown the metaphorical orange away, but if they don’t ever set it out they might as well.
The orange is the raw data. Last year’s count was broken out by areas as small as Auburn, Federal Way, Kent and Renton. This year the data has been rolled out with those and more collected as “Southwest King County,” one of only six such broad regions. The metaphorical orange was the detail, being able to compare those communities against each other in relation to the total.
Last year, as soon as the figures were available, I knew the Auburn data was different. While every other community increased the number of unsheltered homeless people they had, Auburn’s numbers dropped. Considerably. That led me to check further. Sure enough, Auburn had been conducting a stepped-up campaign of encampment sweeps.
The county and All Home has used its four-month delay to put out a 116-page glossy report that doesn’t provide that level of information, and when I complain I get to hear three kinds of pushback:
AW) Why do you hate change?
AWW) There’s no point comparing apples to oranges.
AWWW) All that matters is funding for services.
My answers are as follows:
AW) I don’t object to the new system. I just want the raw data so I can derive other information from it other than what the county and All Home deem valuable to me. I happen to care about things besides the total numbers, such as patterns of criminalization and harassment. If we are going to expend so much effort doing these counts, why not let us see the raw data? It doesn’t have to be detailed down to the precise address. Just detailed enough that I can compare across municipalities. And there is little extra trouble providing it. The data should still be there.
AWW) Actually, that “apples and oranges” saying is bullshit. Oranges are citrus fruits. If I wanted a citrus fruit, an apple is not what I want. I just compared them. One’s a citrus fruit and the other one isn’t.
AWWW) Don’t patronize me. “All that matters is…” That’s the autocratic answer that means, “We’ve decided for you what matters.” Blow it out your tailpipe, county. As I have indicated above, patterns of criminalization and harassment need flushing out. I get it. Such findings could lead to protests or even lawsuits. Tough. People need to know. It isn’t frivolous; it’s a matter of life and death.
It’s not true that the methodology is so different that meaningful comparisons across communities couldn’t be made, provided the raw data was made available. Percentages of the whole, adjusted by subtracting data for neighborhoods not counted in 2016, would provide a lot of the information needed. It wouldn’t give a completely 100 percent accurate picture of the relative growth or decline of unsheltered people in those areas in comparison to each other, but it would give a slightly foggy image that would be far better than none at all.
Moving on to other grouses, I am a little bit concerned that the report contains this passage: “Behavioral health conditions were the most frequently reported disabling conditions among Count Us In survey respondents, with 45% experiencing psychiatric or emotional conditions, 36% reporting drug or alcohol abuse, and 34% living with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Could we please not refer to all those conditions as “behavioral health conditions”?
This bit of psychiatric jargon doesn’t actually mean that people suffering from the condition have only their own behavior to blame. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, is generally caused by other people’s behavior.
But by calling them behavioral conditions, you do in fact imply that people with the condition have their behavior to blame for it, for any reader who doesn’t take the trouble to Google the difference.
I’m sure that wasn’t the intended message.
Just like I’m really sure that the intended message behind “you can’t compare apples to oranges” isn’t really “shut up and eat your apple.”
But please knock it off anyway.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time a math professor and three times homeless. He has been involved with Real Change since he supplied the art for the first cover in November of 1994. This is his regular humor column, Adventures in Irony.
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