By Brian Davis
Every January volunteers, under a mandate from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, march out to the streets and interview people experiencing homelessness in order to document numbers. Because of the pandemic many jurisdictions are cancelling their counts, and I hope the new HUD administration cancels this ritual for good.
HUD’s annual Point-In-Time (PIT) counts are meant to provide critical data about individuals living outside and in shelters, as well as demonstrate the overall need from year to year. But I find these piecemeal counts to be invasions of privacy and useless. Have service providers ever enacted any programmatic changes because more people were discovered living outside? Have any cities or counties announced that volunteers saw a huge number of expectant mothers and so they were immediately opening a shelter for new moms? As far as I am aware, little, if anything, positive has come of the PIT counts.
Cities have dramatically different approaches to “counting,” and beyond training prior to counts, there is little local or national oversight of the process. Large numbers of people are missed in the count, such as those who ride public transportation all night, people who are staying with friends or family for the night, or those staying in vehicles, abandoned buildings and motel rooms (some of which are not officially counted as ‘homeless’ by HUD). The inadequacies of how the counts are collected give community leaders and the media a distorted picture of the extent of the problem. Media reports rarely explore the shortfalls of PIT data, but just emphatically state that homelessness was up or down over the last year.
Finally, a one day snapshot of homelessness does not equal a trend. Can you imagine the outcry if the local weather person said that because on January 23, 2018, it was 24 degrees and the same day in 2019 it was 12 degrees, this proves that global warming is a hoax?
The effort that goes into these annual counts could be much better used to move people into safe, decent, affordable and accessible housing.