Dr. Catherine Crosland crouched next to a gray tarp she thought might be concealing an unhoused D.C. resident. “Hello! Is anyone home?”
She was helping the city conduct a survey and she had a $10 gift card to Subway or McDonalds to give out that night in exchange for the interruption to the person’s rest. Crosland is Director of Homeless Outreach at Unity Health Care, but on Jan. 22 she was just one of roughly 300 volunteers helping D.C. conduct the 2020 Point in Time (PIT) Count. The volunteers, many affiliated with the nonprofits Pathways to Housing D.C., Miriam’s Kitchen, and Community Connections, traveled to many areas of the city to count anyone sleeping on the street in order to determine the official number of people experiencing homelessness in the District.
People staying in city shelters and recreation centers used as temporary hypothermia shelters would be counted by the staff at those facilities. Private organizations submit their data as well. The PIT Count, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirement since 2001, helps the city determine where to allocate resources for addressing homelessness. The unsheltered portion of the count that Crosland volunteered to assist with is only required every other year, but D.C. elects to conduct it annually to obtain more accurate data.
At the kickoff event held at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the D.C. Council committee on human services, spoke about the District’s commitment to connecting people experiencing homelessness to services and housing. Nadeau thanked volunteers and explained that the PIT Count was an essential piece of the ongoing effort to address homelessness in the District and surrounding counties. “It all starts with you. The data is critically important to understanding what the challenges are and leaders need to see that,” Nadeau said.
Bowser focused her speech at the kickoff event on the District’s progress addressing homelessness, citing the planned $40 million replacement of the 801 East Men’s Shelter and the opening of a Downtown Day Services Center. “As we engage people tonight, and as we go throughout the next days in Washington D.C., know that we have made unprecedented investments in this city in transforming our entire homelessness services system from prevention to emergency shelter for families,” Bowser said.
As volunteers walked through the city streets, no person experiencing homelessness was required to take the survey, and they would be counted regardless of whether they responded to questions. Those who did opt to answer volunteers’ survey questions provided the city with valuable demographic information that will inform policy and service providers, according to Tom Fredericksen, chief of policy and programs at The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, whose organization coordinated the count on behalf of the city.
“It helps us keep tabs on how the population is changing,” Fredericksen said.
The PIT survey included questions about race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and experience with domestic violence. A question about date of birth is important for tracking rates of homelessness among seniors and youth; a question about episodes of homelessness provides data on rates of chronic homelessness.
Crosland, the Unity Health Care staff member, and Kayla Haskell, a homeless outreach specialist with Pathways to Housing D.C., both said data from the count are essential for their work helping unsheltered people access housing and medical care. The PIT Count helps medical providers determine where to target services, both brick-and-mortar clinics and outreach programs to deliver medical care on the street, according to Crosland. Haskell explained that the D.C. government has a ratio of housing vouchers for sheltered and unsheltered people, and the count was important for ensuring a representative allocation. “It’s super important that we count every single person that is unsheltered to show that there are a lot of people that are still on the street and need just as many resources as those who are sheltered,” Haskell said.
The rules for how and when the PIT Count is conducted are dictated by HUD. The count is done in the last week of January to capitalize on all of the city’s resources being available, such as temporary hypothermia shelters. However, this timing ensures the count is an underestimate of homelessness rather than an overestimate, according to Crosland.
“If we did it on a warm summer night, we might get people in the count that some might consider to be just backpackers, someone who’s just passing through DC and sleeping in Union Station,” Crosland said. “But on a cold night, you’re much more likely to underestimate the problem because even though a lot of our patients are staying either on the street or in shelters, they do have some social networks and on a really cold night could stay at their uncle’s house or their daughter’s house, even if they don’t feel comfortable living there year-round.”
The situations Crosland described illustrate a gap in the count: it doesn’t account for those who are living doubled up, or sleeping in an already fully occupied home. Other overlooked populations are homeless residents riding buses through the night and those living in areas not canvassed by volunteers, such as the C&O Canal Towpath.
Knowing that the PIT Count is only a snapshot of homelessness in the United States, HUD has traditionally compiled two reports analyzing national data on homelessness. Part 1 of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) compiles and analyzes PIT data and is released around the end of the same year the count is conducted. Part 2 includes PIT data along with other sources such as census estimates or U.S. Department of Education data and is usually released nearly a year after the first report. HUD did not publish a Part 2 report for 2018 data last year. A comparison of the most recent set of reports shows Part 1 of the 2017 AHAR estimated 553,742 people were experiencing homelessness of any kind on one night in January, 2017, while Part 2 estimated 1,416,908 million people in the U.S. experienced “sheltered homelessness” at some point during the year.
2020 was the first year the PIT Count was conducted via app rather than paper and clipboard. The goal was to yield more streamlined answers by guiding volunteers through the survey, Fredericksen said.
Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing D.C., was pleased to see so many new volunteers gathered at the kickoff event. One of these first-time volunteers, Colin Hughes, 38, said that while he wasn’t naive enough to think solving homelessness would be easy, it seems possible, and the work volunteers were doing the night of the PIT Count was an essential step.
“I don’t think you can manage or build a solution if you don’t really understand the scale of it,” Hughes said “That’s what tonight is about, just trying to get some of the details.”
Once the data are analyzed, a regional report is released by the Metropolitan Council of Governments, typically in early May.