Not long ago, I joined volunteers in Washington, DC to conduct the local homelessness census. This “point-in-time” count happens every year here in late January. Although I frequently use point-in-time data to track trends in homelessness in DC and around the country, this was my first count. I was not alone. Numbering among the 100 or so volunteers this year were HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Barbara Poppe, the director of the US Interagency Council, and the Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs, W. Scott Gould.
DC is not the only community that does a homelessness count. HUD requires jurisdictions across the country to conduct one-night counts every other year. The methods localities use and the quality of results vary significantly. DC’s count coordinators mapped the city, assigning teams to neighborhoods and public spaces where homeless people were known to congregate. Besides this “unsheltered” count, program managers tally those sleeping in shelters and transitional housing. Data collected this way help local decision makers understand the size of the population, including whether it’s growing or shrinking. Nationally, HUD uses point-in-time counts in its annual report to Congress.
Mine was one of many teams assigned to Georgetown. We walked up and down Wisconsin Avenue, clipboards in hand, stopping in a few parks and alleyways while skirting the ice that lined the sidewalks. Aided by an outreach worker from Georgetown Ministries, we located two homeless men sleeping outside-- one on a snowy hill and another on a library bench. We asked each his name, age, how long he had been homeless, veteran status, and some questions about his mental and physical health and employment. It seems like a lot of questions to be asking someone sleeping on snow, but we reassured our respondents that the information was confidential and that policymakers would use it to better respond to homelessness. Before parting, we encouraged them to seek shelter nearby. It was hard to leave.
Last year, there were 6,228 people without homes in DC. The number for families has been rising while that for chronically homeless adults has been declining. The city attributes this decrease to the increase in permanent supportive housing -- an evidence-based model that provides “housing first,” then services to help people stabilize and keep their housing. This year’s local census results will be available in May.
Now step back. Nationwide, HUD’s 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) says volunteers counted 643,000 homeless people on one night in January 2009. Many more experienced homelessness over the year. HUD’s local Homelessness Management Information Systems (HMIS) found that 1.54 million people used emergency or transitional housing programs in 2009.