The Annual Count Of The D.C. Region’s Homeless Population Is Tonight. Here’s Why It Matters

Jurisdictions across the D.C. region are scheduled to conduct an annual census of residents experiencing homelessness Wednesday evening. The goal of the survey – called the Point-in-Time Count — is to capture a snapshot of the number of people living outside and in shelters on a single night.

Though advocates argue the Point-in-Time Count results almost certainly result in a significant undercount of people experiencing homelessness, the federal government uses the results to help determine how much funding jurisdictions should get to address homelessness. The count is required for any jurisdiction that receives federal funding for homeless services — and it also helps cities and counties better understand the demographics and needs of their homeless populations.

Here’s an overview of what the Point-in-Time Count is, how it’s conducted, and how the results are used.

What will the count look like in the D.C. region?

In D.C. and its suburbs, volunteers will join with street outreach workers to fan out across the region to administer surveys to people experiencing homelessness. Homeless outreach organizations and local government agencies tend to lead the count, and they typically divide their jurisdictions into areas and send teams of volunteers into each one. Each jurisdiction uses a slightly different methodology.

In the District, for example, volunteers and street outreach professionals will convene in different neighborhoods across the city. Then they’ll divide into smaller groups — typically pairs or teams of three. They walk down every street and alley in a given section of the city and ask every person they encounter who’s experiencing homelessness a set of questions. Then, they enter the data and information into an app. Residents sleeping in the city’s homeless shelters will also be invited to take the survey.

Along the way, volunteers and outreach workers also provide people with any immediate help they may need. For example, they carry socks, gloves, and hats to give to people.

“We will stay out as long as we need to until everybody has completed their zones around the city,” says Christy Respress, the Executive Director of Pathways to Housing DC, which helps organize the count.

In many cases, the count lasts two days. Respress says that this year in D.C., the count will continue into Thursday. Residents who go to the Downtown Day Center for services that day will be asked whether they responded to the survey and invited to take it, in case they were missed on Wednesday evening.

In the suburbs, the count encompasses much larger geographic areas and can be even more complex. For example, last year, case managers in Fairfax County were out as early as 7 a.m. on the day of the count, working to find people in cars and even in the woods.

Why do some say the count is inaccurate?

Local advocates and other experts have argued that the Point-in-Time Count’s methodology fails to capture the full picture of homelessness and housing instability. They say it misses people who experience homelessness but aren’t sleeping outside or in the city’s shelters — like people who are living doubled up with other households, or people who sleep in their cars. For example, they point out that the number of homeless students counted by D.C. public schools is often significantly greater than the number counted by the Point-in-Time Count: Last year, D.C. schools counted more than 6,000 homeless students, while the Point-in-Time census last year counted about 4,000 total people experiencing homelessness across the city. (Note that the methodology is different. Students who experience homelessness at any point in the school year are included in the DCPS count, while the Point-in-Time count is a snapshot of a single night. Similarly, while there is not a local data point to compare to, the total number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people counted nationally during the PIT Count in 2020 was roughly 580,000, while just the number of people who relied on shelters throughout that full year was 1,253,000.)

The count is intentionally held in the winter, to get a sense of who is sleeping outside even in the most extreme of circumstances. But that’s also a time when many people experiencing homelessness are more likely to seek protection inside buildings and could be less likely to be in view outside.

And, Respress added, it’s difficult to get an accurate count for people sleeping in the woods of Rock Creek Park.

To complicate things further, rain is forecast for the D.C. region for Wednesday evening. That presents “extra challenges” for having sensitive and personal conversations, says Respress.

“When you’re trying to, in the rain, speak to somebody who might be still in their tent rather than inviting them to come outside and speak to you, it does get a little more difficult for sure,” says Respress. “Of course, the biggest challenges [are] for people experiencing homelessness themselves – who have to figure out how to stay warm and dry.”

In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office also issued a report saying that while it was still a critical source of information, the Point-in-Time Count’s methodology was flawed and likely leading to an undercount. As of the latest update on its website, the Department of Housing and Urban Development was still in the process of reviewing its methodology.

But does the count still have value?

People who do homeless outreach in the District say it does.

“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” says Respress. “But we must have the data … and we have no other better way right now.”

In addition to providing a snapshot of the number of people living outside and in shelters, the massive street outreach effort on the night of the count can be helpful for hearing what people on the street need — and ultimately connecting them with services and essentials.

For example, the survey can give street outreach teams a better picture of where in the city people are living, and where they should direct their efforts. The surveys also capture demographic information — like race and ethnicity, years of homelessness, veteran status, and whether people are survivors of domestic violence — so that the region can better understand who is experiencing homelessness.

“It’s an intensely personal conversation,” says Respress, describing the survey that volunteers and street outreach workers conduct during the count. “We talk to every person who’s willing and open to speaking with us, because we want to know things about their age, their race, what led them to experiencing homelessness, how long they’ve experienced homelessness. Are they a veteran? Are they working? You know, these things are really, really critical because we need the data to help us understand not just who’s experiencing homelessness, but what other kinds of help people need.”

The count helps jurisdictions track trends in the homeless population — in age, gender, veteran status, and other demographics areas.

“We need this data in order to identify those trends,” says Respress.

The Point in Time count can capture what residents experiencing homelessness are asking for — like more mental health services and better shelter access during hypothermia season.

“Y’all coming out here to talk to people and hear their story, hear where they’re at, that’s probably a good thing,” Temitope Ibijemilusi, told WAMU/DCist while unhoused and living around Union Station, last year.

What did the Point-in-Time Count results say last year?

Last year’s count showed declines in homelessness across the D.C. region. According to a report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Point-in-Time Count found 7,605 people experiencing homelessness — which represented the lowest number since the body started tracking the numbers regionally in 2001. That number was an 8% decrease from the 2021 Point-in-Time Count.

In D.C., the 2022 Point-in-Time Count identified 4,401 people experiencing homelessness — the lowest number the city had seen in 17 years and an approximately 14% decline from the 2021. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the sustained decrease in homelessness in the city over the past several years was the result of the significant investments her administration has made in housing and wrap-around services.

Advocates have pushed hard for the city to increase funding for programs like permanent supportive housing vouchers — which provide residents with stable housing in addition to intensive case management.

Last year after the count’s results were released, Jesse Rabinowitz, the senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, said the decline in homelessness proved the increased investments were working — and made the case for them to continue.

“This proves what we’ve been saying for years: ending chronic homelessness in DC is possible,” Rabinowitz told DCist/WAMU.

After all, Respress says, while the Point-in-Time Count is a huge citywide effort, “the real work is the everyday of – ‘What do we do with this data? How are we using it to end homelessness?’”

This story was updated to clarify the difference in methodology between DCPS and the Point-in-Time count. 

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