More than a Number: How the Point-in-Time Count Helps End Homelessness

Each year, HUD requires Continuums of Care (CoCs) to count the number of people experiencing homelessness in the geographic area that they serve through the Point-in-Time count (PIT). Conducted by most CoCs during the last ten days in January, the PIT count includes people served in shelter programs every year. In addition, every odd-numbered year, CoCs are responsible for counting people who are unsheltered, mobilizing staff and volunteers who canvas the streets and other settings to identify and enumerate people experiencing homelessness. Data collected during the PIT count is critical to effective planning and performance management toward the goal of ending homelessness for each community and for the nation as a whole. Counting those who are unsheltered ensures that many of the people with the highest needs are taken into account in community planning.  In fact, the benefit of conducting a comprehensive count that includes an unsheltered count is so significant that many communities do so every year, including Boston, Denver, Miami, New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Diego, and many others.

Now is the time to get involved. Many CoCs have already begun planning for their next count. Everyone interested in participating in the upcoming 2014 Point-in-Time count should engage the CoC points of contact for their geographic region(s). These can be found on HUD’s OneCPD Resource Exchange. For many communities, the count represents a great opportunity to engage volunteers in local efforts to end homelessness.

The PIT count is also the main data source for measuring progress on the goals of Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. To see PIT count data in action, visit HomelessAnalytics.org, a joint effort of the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).Through the PIT count, communities identify important data on the general homeless population and subpopulations, including Veterans, families, chronically homeless individuals, and youth. These counts help us all identify where progress is being made and where redoubling of effort is required, both geographically and for different subpopulations.

Counting Youth Experiencing Homelessness

The number of young people who experience homelessness each year is largely unknown. Often called an "invisible population," young people experiencing homelessness tend to stay with friends, often avoid adult services, and may be reluctant to be identified by authorities, which makes it difficult for communities to include them in their annual PIT counts and to engage them in services. To improve efforts to identify youth during the 2013 PIT count, nine communities, four Federal agencies, and 18 funders launched an initiative called Youth Count!. The Urban Institute conducted a process evaluation of the initiative, identifying promising practices and challenges across the diverse sites and approaches used. How youth are approached and how questions are asked matters. The process evaluation documented the benefits of involving youth in designing and pre-testing the approaches to the counts, and of engaging youth who had experienced homelessness in identifying outreach locations and ways to approach youth successfully. The Federal agencies involved in Youth Count! recently issued a joint statement to encourage CoCs, Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) providers, and state and local education liaisons to collaborate around planning and conducting their 2014 Point-in-Time count. The benefits of such collaboration extend beyond the PIT count, and can assist communities as they strive to improve service delivery to youth experiencing homelessness.

Counting Veterans Experiencing Homelessness

Similarly, communities can benefit from proven approaches to identify Veterans among people experiencing homelessness. The Department of Veterans Affairs has recommended better ways to ask people experiencing homelessness about their military service to help assess potential eligibility for VA resources for Veterans experiencing homelessness.

Data about the prevalence of homelessness in each community can help galvanize local responses to accelerating progress on ending homelessness. But the count can be more than just a count, too. The PIT count also provides an opportunity for CoCs to amplify the information they gather with more in-depth surveys of individuals by using tools like the Vulnerability Index and partnerships with a 100,000 Homes Campaign if they are part of a campaign community. Most importantly, communities can work with outreach teams, health care, and service providers to use the count as an opportunity to connect people experiencing homelessness with housing and vital services. A Homeless Registry – a list of people experiencing homelessness, identified by name – has helped many communities connect people experiencing homelessness to housing and services more quickly, by ensuring that those resources are targeted to the most vulnerable populations. In these ways, this year’s count can help reduce next year’s count toward zero.

To join in PIT count efforts, please contact your local CoC.