The blog of the Urban Institute
February 14, 2019

How volunteers conduct a one-night survey to better gauge homelessness

February 14, 2019

On my daily commute, I often pass by the same man pacing in the tunnels above the Metro station platform, and another man selling Street Sense. I usually zip by, racing to get to the office, where I study solutions to homelessness from a population and systems perspective.

Recently, thanks to an opportunity to put a face to the numbers, I stopped to talk to these men and learn more about their living situations and that of others in DC experiencing homelessness.

We and a group of other Urban Institute researchers volunteered for the “Point-in-Time” (PIT) Count in January, joining hundreds of volunteers and service providers in more than 300 communities around the country. We hit the streets to count the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, part of a larger effort to count all people experiencing both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness.

Per last year’s count, more than half a million people experienced homelessness on a single night. More than 35 percent were living on the streets. The data collected are reported to the US Department of Housing and Urban development (HUD) to produce an Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

This report helps determine how much funding communities will receive and is a benchmark of progress on reducing homelessness. HUD estimates that over a year, more than 1.4 million people experiencing homelessness received services from emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. As high housing costs across the country continue to make this issue pertinent, HUD recently announced $2 billion in funding to renew existing grants to community-based housing and service providers working to end homelessness.

How does the PIT Count happen?

Conducting a wide and consistent assessment of people experiencing homelessness depends on teams of service providers and community volunteers. To be as comprehensive as possible, service providers cover the count of people staying in shelter the night of the count while volunteers help cover everywhere else. These are spaces not meant for habitation but where people may be sleeping, like cars, abandoned buildings, parking garages, or on the street.

This year, we and other Urban Institute staff volunteered in the PIT Count in the DC area. As researchers working in the housing and homelessness space, we appreciated the opportunity to connect with local service providers and use our data collection skills to bolster capacity for an accurate count.

Being a volunteer means spending the night (well into the early morning hours) talking to people who may be experiencing homelessness. We were trained to administer a short survey that included demographic, health, income, and housing-related questions.

Regardless of whether people take the survey, we offer free goods, like fresh socks, hats, bus tokens, or water. Service providers also use the PIT Count to build connections with people they may have tried to reach before, especially in the postholiday cold, when people might be considering using services for the first time if they haven’t accepted them in the past.

Will I have enough water? What if I need a bathroom? What do I wear to stay warm enough that late at night? It occurred to us that this is just a glimpse of the continuous considerations faced by someone living unsheltered.

Before the PIT Count began, the first-time volunteers in the group started to question the logistics of the night. Will I have enough water? What if I need a bathroom? What do I wear to stay warm enough that late at night? It occurred to us that this is just a glimpse of the continuous considerations faced by someone living unsheltered.

As a volunteer who doesn’t often engage with people experiencing homelessness, the PIT Count can raise sensitivities about how to engage with people respectfully, check our assumptions, and approach the sensitive and personal survey questions with awareness.

In speaking with a man in a wheelchair living at the national airport, I could see his physical disabilities, but I also had to ask him other detailed health questions, like if he had a mental illness or diabetes, cancer, or another chronic health condition.

Being a volunteer also raises questions like these: How do I approach someone if I’m unsure if they’re homeless? Do I disturb their sleep and, if so, how? Do I approach a youth differently than an adult? The trainings offered by local jurisdictions strive to address these concerns and prepare volunteers.

An assessment of our volunteer experiences

Use the strengths that both community members and service providers can offer

Our volunteer experiences varied from neighborhood to neighborhood and depended on the team we joined. Similarly, the people we surveyed have various histories and circumstances that led them to the streets.

Community leaders and service providers can shepherd less experienced volunteers to foster a more natural or meaningful engagement with people experiencing homelessness.

At the national airport, a bike cop helped us distinguish people sleeping on the floor or chairs awaiting a flight from the regulars who live there.

In downtown DC, an outreach coordinator knew many people by name and led volunteers by example with his comfortable and caring approach. He knew the services that were most appropriate for each person we approached and referred them to a local agency where he worked. At the national airport, a bike cop helped us distinguish people sleeping on the floor or chairs awaiting a flight from the regulars who live there.

But community volunteers offer value being outside existing systems. In one case, a man refused to take the survey with a service provider but was willing to take it with a volunteer—a new face can be a welcome opportunity for engagement. 

Standardize trainings but not outreach

It’s important to use a system that makes sense locally without compromising training essentials. Although relying on local knowledge for outreach is critical, standardizing trainings can set consistent expectations and encourage data consistency. Using trainers who played various roles in survey development and fielding can also be helpful (e.g., a survey developer, a service provider, an experienced volunteer).

Trainings should reiterate to volunteers that their work has important implications for the funding communities receive. But the PIT Count must strike a balance between getting accurate data and engaging thoughtfully with people. In teaching volunteers how to navigate new or uncomfortable situations, trainings should integrate human-centered design concepts and an empathetic understanding of homelessness.

photo of a tent

A tent in downtown Washington, DC. Photo by Claudia Solari.

Recognizing that experiencing housing instability can be the cause or result of trauma, trainings could take a trauma-informed approach, walking through introductory language around sensitive topics, such as history with domestic violence. Service providers use these concepts every day. Following the lead of experienced service providers familiar with these principles can offer more depth to the training.

An opportunity for community members to join the effort to end homelessness

For many Americans, only a few missed paychecks or one emergency can jeopardize housing stability. As such, affordable housing and homelessness are important issues for any community.

As researchers volunteering for the PIT Count, we were excited to lend our data skills and survey knowledge to increase local capacity while supporting service providers and fellow community members. Volunteering helped us ground the topics we research in the experiences of our unhoused neighbors.

The PIT Count can be the first step to get involved in local efforts to end homelessness, either through advocacy, volunteering, or starting a conversation about your community’s needs and strengths.

Photo by Andrew Tallon via GettyImages.

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