A great challenge for social service agencies is determining the number of sheltered and unsheltered individuals who are homeless in a given area. Data on homelessness — where people stay, how long they have been on the streets, what resources they utilize — changes constantly and is extremely difficult to capture. The U.S Census and other surveys used to inform best practices for social service practitioners provide few insights into the extent and conditions of homelessness.
To fill this information gap, HUD mandates every county across the country to conduct a Point-in-Time (PIT) count that attempts to obtain an accurate figure of a county’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless population for one night of the year. This task is designated to Continuums of Care (COCs) throughout the country. COCs are local or regional bodies responsible for coordinating housing and homelessness services, and they receive and disburse HUD funds. Every January, COCs recruit and coordinate teams to survey sections of their service area to attempt to account for all people who are unsheltered homeless. Teams coordinate with local police departments and are equipped with care packages to distribute to anyone they might find. The results of the count inform how resources will be allocated across the country for homelessness services.
Late January may seem like an ineffective time to conduct an unsheltered homeless street count, but the reasoning behind the timing is sound. While teams conduct the unsheltered count by hitting the streets, homeless shelters throughout the COC service also keep track of the number of people who pass through their doors. People staying in a shelter are easier to account for than those on the streets, and people without permanent housing are more likely to seek shelter during the coldest part of the year. Conducting the count at this time makes it easier to come closer to capturing the area’s total homeless population, because a greater percentage of them are registered at shelters. The results of the 2015 PIT count will not be known for months. The most recent version of the Annual State of Homelessness Report is available here.
What really makes the count possible is the coordinated participation of local experts working in the field of homelessness services and prevention. While the organizations work together throughout the year, on this night these industry volunteers utilize their collective knowledge for the benefit of the entire community to obtain data that will help everyone involved provide services more effectively. Here in Oakland County, we had participation from an incredible collection of organizations, all working to improve housing conditions and end homelessness in our community. For those wondering who is out there providing services to those experiencing housing crises, look no further than these impressive organizations that put forth more than 100 volunteers for the PIT count:
Hope Network – Pontiac location
Patrick Taylor is CHN’s former Community Revitalization Coordinator.