Measuring Homelessness in the US
Each year in January, the US Government Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts a Point-in-Time (PIT) Count or Housing Inventory (HIC) Count to estimate the number of unhoused individuals in districts that have been approved for funding. Data for the count is collected by local volunteers who walk through neighborhoods to gather statistics through observation. Continuum of Care (CoC) Organizations also play a crucial role in the outcome of this count by providing data on the number of unhoused people within their facilities.
The PIT Count is also the primary source of data used by the US Government to track demographics and needs of people experiencing homelessness throughout the country. This survey collects information on specific characteristics within homeless communities including age, gender, mental illness, chronic illness, substance use, history of institutional involvement, income, veteran status, and more. According to dcpit.org, “by collecting this crucial information, we (the US Government) can better target resources, track progress toward the District’s strategic plan, Homeward DC, and be more efficient toward our goal of ending homelessness in our community. Without understanding a household’s needs and experiences, we would be left guessing at what interventions would be successful in moving families and individuals into stable housing.”
The PIT Count can be considered ineffective for its inability to quantify unhoused people staying in hospitals, at the homes of friends or relatives, or in less conspicuous locations where there may be a specific desire to stay hidden, such as 24-hour food facilities, or abandoned buildings. Data has also been considered difficult to collect in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will also impact this year’s count.
Each year, Christ House staff, Year Long Volunteers (YLVs), and local volunteers join the PIT Count and set out across Adams Morgan to survey unhoused community members. In groups of 4-5 volunteers, spread out across three cars, the Christ House team joined thousands of others in the nation to conduct the PIT survey. One of our YLVs, Holly, shared that her group met “a man who was a US veteran, who ended up on the streets due to many unfortunate circumstances,” and “another man who was an immigrant from Kenya who was very kind and willing to share more about his story.” Unhoused neighbors accepted gift cards provided by The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, and socks, blankets, gloves, which our volunteers brought along for distribution. The men accepted information on health-related resources that our volunteers provided through conversation.
YLV Lauren shared “I was initially nervous to walk around from 10pm – 2am at night in unknown areas, but found that the count was surprisingly easy – particularly because there were so few people outside and because the men we encountered were really nice.” Lauren’s experience is worth noting – there were very few people outside. Conducting the PIT Count during the winter can lead to undercounting. More individuals may be granted a bed or couch to crash on during the coldest time of year. For individuals experiencing homelessness on the streets during the winter, the best place to put a tent or blanket might be out of sight. Additionally, YLV Charlotte shared that there are challenges collecting data for the PIT and that “there could be varied responses based on how the survey questions are asked.” Even if volunteers are consistent in their survey questions, the counts are conducted slightly differently from city to city, making it challenging to compare data.
Due to the structure of the PIT Count and the challenges already present when counting unhoused individuals on a given night, it is even more difficult to estimate how many individuals experience homelessness in a given year. Last year’s PIT Count shows that 3,865 individuals (this figure does not include families or children) were experiencing homelessness in DC on January 27, 2021. Of these individuals, 72% were male and 85% were Black or African American. The total percentage of Black or African American individuals in DC was 46% in 2021, painting a clear picture of the racial disparities of homelessness. While there is much room for the PIT Count to improve in accuracy, it does provide a glimpse into the homelessness crisis across the nation and who is most affected. If you want to read more about last year’s count in DC, click here: The data from the 2022 PIT Count will be released in late spring.