For the past two years at some point in January, I have piled on two sweaters, my long underwear, a pair of jeans, hat, gloves, and my big coat to board the “T” and start my journey into Boston around 11 PM. You’d be correct in thinking this is not exactly dinner-with-friends attire; rather this bulky get up is meant to keep me warm for several hours walking around in the biting windchill of downtown Boston. This late night journey is towards what is commonly referred to as the “homeless census”. I am a census taker. Starting at 11:30 PM, different teams throughout the entire geographic boundaries of the city of Boston walk through their designated areas and interview those experiencing homelessness in Boston.
People experiencing homelessness who choose not to seek shelter are colloquially referred to as “rough sleepers”. For rough sleepers, the cold feels safer and more secure than shelters. Rough sleepers instead seek shelter in doorways, bus stations, and other locations away from the elements. Each of these people during the Boston City Homeless Census becomes a data point.
As census takers, we collect demographic data on race, ethnicity, language, as well as name and age if the person we are interviewing feels comfortable. The process of turning these snippets of information and descriptions into data that the city of Boston uses to inform policy happens at City Hall and lasts well into the next few months for those involved. I haven’t seen it for myself but our team lead describes the incredible amount of data that comes into the central hub at City Hall. The data sets that are created based on the Homeless census have just begun their journey. They are checked and double checked by statisticians for duplications and errors before being released to the public months later. From this point of public release, the numbers begin to tell a story to the public and to city officials on the state of homelessness in Boston. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that each Continuum of Care conduct a “point in time count” of those experiencing homelessness. This point in time count spans a 24 hour period in which an area tries to determine how many people are currently unhoused in that geographic area.
In New Hampshire, there are a number of important surveys that are used to gauge the public health and safety of our communities. For instance, data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) provides information about the rate of health-related risk behaviors, chronic health conditions, and use of preventive services among adults. Analyzing the use of tobacco and other substances, the number of people with high blood pressure, obesity, the amount of physical activity, and other factors provides useful data. The data can lead to important policy changes and funding for research that can provide better health outcomes and even cures.
Similarly, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) measures risk behavior of high school aged youth. It provides data that is related to many aspects of their behavioral health including unintentional injury or violence, unhealthy eating that can lead to chronic illness later in life, and unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection. The data collected is used to show whether current interventions and strategies are working or need to be changed up a bit. The data is used to monitor progress towards goals, determine barriers to getting the proper care needed and to influence public policy. There is no way to connect the answer to an individual, but the answers in total help us make important decisions about what we can do in our communities to improve health outcomes, both mental and physical.
The YRBSS is the only source of youth-centered New Hampshire data we have to provide the necessary information to thoughtfully and responsibly focus public health efforts. Without data, we are only guessing what our communities need in order to continue to support the healthy development of our youth and families.
We rely on surveillance data to alert us when our local lake or pond has high levels of bacteria and it’s unsafe to swim. We rely on data to alert us to contaminated groundwater in our communities — think Erin Brockovich. In fact, most of our day-to-day living is data driven, whether we realize it or not. Data is all the more critical when it comes to the health outcomes of our state’s greatest resource – our incredible young people.
This is something to think about the next time you read through a public health study or see some statistics on the news. Data is not something to be afraid of: what counting and statistics help us to achieve as a society is a clearer picture of where we need to focus our efforts. We all see issues that we would like fixed everyday. It is the statistics and quality data on issues that is needed to empower our governments, local officials, and nonprofits to not blindly try to fix an issue. Data helps target the roots of where a problem is stemming from as well as the branches.
Clare Ryan, BA
Ms. Ryan is a Project Associate at JSI and provides logistical, fiscal, and administrative support for various Northern New England Projects. After graduating from Boston College in 2020, Ms. Ryan spent the last year working with youth in Oakland, CA as a Health Educator focusing on social-emotional learning in high schoolers. She previously worked in a variety of public health fields in the areas of social determinants of health, HIV prevention, SUD treatment, recovery, and clean needle programming. She worked with and continues to volunteer with organizations in the New England area around the issue of homelessness.