Late on the night of January 23, thousands of people will spread out across the nation’s urban and rural communities to count how many of their fellow residents are homeless. Among those counting will be the staff of homeless organizations, government employees, landlords, and volunteers of every stripe (including many who are homeless themselves).
They will count everyone staying in a homeless shelter or transitional housing. They will look for people living on the streets, in encampments, and under freeways. They will search for those in abandoned houses, along rivers, and in desert canyons. They will undertake this amazing annual task to help us understand trends — whether homelessness is shrinking or growing, and what the population counted looks like. Because of their largely volunteer efforts, we will know whether we are doing a better job of ending homelessness — or falling behind.
What the PIT Tells Us, and What It Doesn’t
We’ll know a lot from this count, but of course we won’t know everything. One thing we will NOT know is precisely how many people are homeless.
This Point in Time (PIT) count is designed to enumerate those living in a homelessness facility and those living on the streets. It does not generally capture people who are staying a few nights with a relative but must leave, youth who are couch-surfing temporarily, or those being put up in a garage or a barn.
While there may be some sampling of these groups, a door-to-door census would be required to find them all, and even the decennial U.S. Census can’t manage that.
There is, however, another way we identify those households: they are counted throughout the year, if and when they use homeless programs. That information is then included in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report II (AHAR).
Together, the PIT and the AHAR tell us a tremendous amount about people experiencing homelessness and the problem of homelessness in our nation:
- They tell us about people’s characteristics, including race, disability status, and age.
- They tell us where people are staying and how long.
- They tell us whether the strategies we are using to end homelessness are working.
- They also tell us if our effort to end people’s homelessness is working, or whether it is being offset by the headwinds of housing affordability, low wages and benefits, poverty, racial inequality, etc.
Who Is Counted, and Who Isn’t
The PIT and the AHAR gather information on households that have no place — other than a homeless facility — in which to live.
There are other households that are perhaps on the cusp of homelessness but have managed to avoid it. Although they may be unstably or poorly housed, since they are not literally homeless, they are not tallied in the PIT. They are people staying with family or friends, who would prefer a place of their own but can’t afford one. Others have a place to live but, for reasons of cost, end up moving frequently.
These are people with housing problems, and the solution for them is rental assistance, not a homeless shelter. The Alliance will continue to actively and aggressively advocate for federal rental assistance so that these households never become literally homeless.
Those of us who are working to end homelessness are deeply grateful for the efforts of all the volunteers who, year after year, blanket our communities in the middle of what are often freezing January nights to collect this valuable information. The data may not be perfect, but it is tremendously valuable: it helps us understand what is working better, and build the case to do more.
We at the National Alliance to End Homelessness appreciate and thank all the people (including our own staff members) who participate in the count. The information they gather is essential if our nation is to succeed in its goal of ending homelessness.