Recruiting and Training PIT Count Volunteers: What the Experts Say

January is upon us, and that means the 2015 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count is right around the corner. This year, in addition to their annual sheltered count, communities are required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to conduct an unsheltered count of people sleeping in places unfit for human habitation, such as on the street or in a park.

As part of their preparation, communities around the country are training volunteers to conduct unsheltered counts. Unsheltered counts are generally conducted on a single night in January, which means that communities must rely on volunteers to find and count as many unsheltered homeless people as possible. Volunteers are critical to the unsheltered count process, as many communities wouldn’t be able to conduct unsheltered counts without them.

Counting unsheltered homeless people is a daunting task. Not only are many unsheltered homeless people hard to find, but members of some homeless subpopulations, like homeless youth and LGBTQ individuals, congregate in different areas than larger populations and may try to avoid being identified as homelessness. Locating them requires different strategies.

Last month, in preparation for the unsheltered PIT Count, we hosted a webinar on recruiting and training volunteers. You can listen to a recording of this webinar and check out the presentations given in this webinar on the Alliance website—as well as access the recordings of webinars on the basics of unsheltered counts and on counting youth. (Or you can just check out the recording embedded below.)

For the purposes of this blog post, I’ve compiled a few of the highlights from the webinar on finding and training volunteers.

Adriana D. Camarda, who has trained volunteers in the city of Chicago since PIT Counts were first mandated by HUD in 2007, highlighted offered some guidance on the fundamentals of recruiting and train unsheltered count volunteers. She advised that communities:

  • Have as many repeat volunteers each year as possible, so that volunteers are already “experts” in unsheltered counts and can lead teams or become more specialized in counting certain subpopulations;
  • Emphasize safety planning with volunteers prior to the night of the unsheltered count;
  • Create specialized teams of volunteers that have expertise working with a particular group, such as homeless youth or veterans;
  • Partner with local organizations, such as college and universities or non-profits, to recruit volunteers who are dedicated and care about the issue of homelessness; and
  • Collect and respond to feedback from volunteers.

Jama Shelton, of the True Colors Fund in New York City, discussed the need for volunteers who are trained in how to ask homeless individuals about sexual orientation and gender identity. Some of her tips were:

  • Connect with a LGBTQ-serving agency in your community to discuss best practices and resources
  • Ensure that the questions volunteers ask about sexual orientation and gender identity are inclusive of the wide range of options outside of the straight/gay and male/female binaries;
  • Discuss with volunteers why these questions are important, and why it is important that they ask them in a respectful and empathetic way; and
  • Ask volunteers to participate in role-playing activities ahead of the unsheltered count so that they can become comfortable with the questions and sensitive ways to ask them.

Alan Ostergaard, the Youth Development Director of the Greater Twin Cities YMCA in Minnesota, is a long-time PIT Count volunteer. He shared some of his recommendations for counting youth. They included:

  • Ensure that volunteers are trained to avoid making assumptions about the homeless individuals they talk to;
  • Train volunteers on the inherent distrust of authority that many homeless youth may have, and how volunteers can work to gain the trust of homeless youth; and
  • Partner with McKinney-Vento school homeless liaisons to reach homeless youth who are enrolled in school.