Behind the Scenes of The Homeless Census

Brian Sullivan

Mayor Muriel Bowser and Nani Coloretti, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), greeted a crowd of roughly 200 people on the night of January 28, 2015. The HUD employees, homeless advocates and other volunteers were preparing for this year’s Point-in-Time (PIT) count to calculate the city’s homeless population.

“I see a remarkable group of people in this room,” Coloretti said in opening remarks.

The goal of the count is to search for unsheltered people in the surrounding area and survey them to collect data on homelessness in Washington, D.C. Volunteers and HUD employees break up into groups and scour the streets.

“[We use the] data to find out individual situations to help target services that people need,” Coloretti later told Street Sense.

Each year, the PIT count occurs nationwide on a single night in January, ensuring no one is counted twice.

Local Continuums of Care (CoC’s), bodies of stakeholders that coordinate housing or funds for the homeless or those in poverty, organize the effort within their individual geographic locations and utilize raw data collected by the volunteers, according to Tom Fredericksen, chief of policy programs for The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP). TCP coordinates the CoC in Washington and has been in charge of conducting the PIT count in the District since 2001.

HUD requires a count of people staying in shelters every year and people living unsheltered every other year. Many Continuums, the District’s included, choose to perform the unsheltered count every year to stay better informed, according to HUD Special Assistant Laura Kunkel

The data is then sent to HUD, the Department of Human Services, the Washington Council of Governments, D.C.’s neighboring jurisdictions and the Metro, and helps D.C. decide how to allocate its resources to help the people they’ve counted, Fredericksen explained.

“The year-to-year counts have been used to assist with developing the Winter Plan or helping to decide where city-contracted outreach providers should conduct their work throughout the year,” he said.

PIT count data is also used as evidence to present to Congress. HUD Deputy Chief of Staff Laura Hogshead has seen the count evolve drastically since she began working on homelessness in the early 2000s.

“We had the beginning of this data, but nothing like this,” Hogshead said. “It’s kind of amazing how far this developed.”

As data improves, the District has a better grasp of who is homeless and what services are going to be most important to get them housed and prevent others from experiencing similar situations. Coloretti remembers when the count started ten years ago: volunteers only asked whether or not people identified as homeless.

The survey questions volunteers ask today range from a person’s name and age to whether they’re a veteran, whether they have any disabilities or whether they’ve been on the street for more than one year.

One example Coloretti gave of the survey’s attempt to gather the most accurate data possible is that this year respondents can choose to check off the box “transgendered.”

This was Hogshead’s first year going out for the count. She was nervous, but readily stocked with a box of Cliff Bars to hand out to hungry people.

Kunkel, one of many returning volunteers, passed on some helpful tips to her team.

“Go up and tap their toes if they’re asleep, that way we at least know they’re alright,” she said.

The PIT count was partly inspired by the research of Dennis P. Culhane. He followed the same subset of homeless people for a year and calculated the cost of homelessness on society, according to Hogshead.

Emergency room trips and the costs of courtroom fees were just some of the examples that Culhane used to prove that it was cheaper to house homeless people instead of leaving them on the street.

“That inspired the data aspect of homelessness,” Kunkel added. “It put the numbers in a way that appealed to the masses.”

But data is not the only thing that brings people to the PIT count each year.

“It puts a face to the work,” Larry Handerhan, program manager for HUD’s Office for Philanthropic Innovation, said. “You feel like you never see the people you help. This makes it more real.”

For District PIT count veteran Karen Cunningham, Executive Director for the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, this year’s count was warmer than the last.

Last year there were “warming buses” parked right outside of Union Station. People could walk onto the bus and warm up for as long as they needed to, just as long as the hypothermia alert was still on, according to Cunningham.

“Although we saw very few unsheltered homeless people on the night of January 28, the number of unsheltered people goes up significantly as the weather gets warmer,” Cunningham said.

Last year’s count of “literally homeless” people was 11,946, up by several hundred people from 11,547 in 2013, according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The increase was attributed primarily to a rise in the city’s population, according to the report. The 2015 report will be released in late spring.

“People think homelessness is a problem that can’t be solved,” Handerhan said. “I think it can be solved. It’s a matter of resource allocation and collaboration.”

Issues |Housing|Living Unsheltered|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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