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Making it Count
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At least once every two years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities around the country to count people who are homeless on the streets and in the shelters. Some communities conduct the counts more often, and use the data to improve programs and policies. HRC’s Katrina Crotts talks with two programs about the counts in their communities. Contribute to the forum discussion on this topic by clicking on the link at the end of this article!
Did you participate in a 2009 point-in-time count? Share your experiences, and hear about HRC’s Katy Hanlon’s experience as part of a local effort in our Forum.


Our lives are filled with counting – money, days until the weekend, hours until the end of a workday. When it comes to counting people, things get a little fuzzier. The U.S. Census Bureau has figured out how to count adults and children – but what about people who are homeless? They don’t get counted as households, since they may not have phones or mailing addresses. Yet it is important that we know how many people are living on the streets and in shelters. Why? So resources can be allocated to assist our neighbors and hopefully get them back into housing.

Communities across the country are required to count people who are living on the streets and in shelters, and to report the data to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD at least every other year. The point-in-time counts are done over a 24 hour period and they require a great deal of coordination, planning and sheer manpower. Many communities are taking the initiative to be pro-active about the counts and to use the data for more than just HUD reporting requirements.

At Baltimore Homeless Services, (BHS), about 125 volunteers are needed to conduct the count in Baltimore City. Where does BHS find these volunteers? Students from Morgan State University (MSU) and Loyola College, city government staff, community members, and other homeless service agency staff all get involved. This year MSU is partnering with BHS using GPS technology to map out different routes – a sign of the changing times.

Gloria Townsend, the BHS Information and Evaluation Manager, explained the work that it takes to serve as the lead agency, organizing and conducting the count mandated by HUD. The point-in-time count takes about 18 hours. Teams of volunteers participate in an observational street count and survey from 1:00am to 6:00am. Beginning at 8:30am, consumers at drop-in centers and soup kitchens are counted and surveyed to gather information about their housing situation and composition, health condition, physical location and income. At 6:00pm, the count is completed. All of the surveys are collected by BHS for later analysis to help determine the needs of the people who are homeless in Baltimore City.
 
BHS uses their Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to calculate the numbers of individuals and families living in the shelters on the day of the point-in-time count. BHS also tries to include the few shelters in the area that do not participate in the HMIS, so that the count is as accurate as possible. Townsend stated that two of the biggest challenges in conducting the count are winter weather conditions and finding people that may be in places that are not easily accessible, such as abandoned buildings.
 
Youth who are homeless and not living with their families are hard to find and count. BHS is collaborating with the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health and the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative to conduct a count of youth who are homeless and between the ages 10 to 24.
 
What do programs do with all this data? In addition to meeting HUD funding and reporting requirements, programs like BHS use the data to inform local plans to end homelessness. The point-in-time count enables communities to determine the extent of homelessness by comparing data from year to year and to assess the needs of individuals and families.

Nationally, the point-in-time counts help to bring attention to the problem of homelessness. HUD requires communities receiving funding to conduct counts at least every other year, and encourages annual counts (LAHSA, 2009). The numbers provide baseline estimates for monitoring trends, developing plans and setting policies. However, the methods are not without flaws. For example, communities use different methods for counting and may have various interpretations of definitions (Sermons, 2009).
 
Margot Ackermann, Research and Evaluation Director at Homeward in Richmond, VA shared plans for their 11th year coordinating the count. In the Richmond region, service providers, city and county Departments of Social Services staff, and police officers all assist with the count. A service fair is held in conjunction with a local congregation’s lunch program, and people from the community volunteer to administer surveys to individuals and families who are homeless. Homeward takes advantage of the count as an opportunity to learn more about their community. As people are counted, volunteers administer an informational survey covering topics such as health, legal issues, income sources and foreclosure history – a wonderful way to show individuals that they are more than just a number.

A few years ago, Homeward took the initiative to conduct a count every 6 months, rather than once a year. Ackerman explained that the counts take a lot of resources, but that they “are lucky because people are very willing to do it and see the value in the data.”
 

References

Cunningham, M. & Henry, M. (2007). Homelessness counts. Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness. Available at: http://www.endhomelessness.org/files/1440_file_30099_NAEH_FINAL_lo.pdf
 
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (1999). Homelessness: Programs and the people they serve. Available at: http://www.huduser.org/publications/homeless/homelessness/ch_1c.html
 
Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). (2009). 2009 greater Los Angeles homeless count. Retrieved from http://www.lahsa.org/hc09/default.asp.

Sermons, M.W. & Henry, M. (2009). Homelessness counts: Changes in homelessness from 2005-2007. Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness. Available at: http://www.endhomelessness.org/files/2158_file_counts_2_final.pdf


HRC Resource
2009
Rockville, MD
617-467-6014