One night a year hundreds of volunteers in DC walked through all the neighborhoods, alleyways, parks, and woods for one simple purpose: to physically count every homeless person in the city.
Started in 1983, the Point In Time (PIT) homeless count was created to finally get an accurate sense of how big the problem of homelessness really was. Before then, estimates of homeless persons in the US ranged wildly, from the millions to hundreds of thousands. To get more accurate data, federal agencies decided to make a count of all homeless persons in a specific place at a specific time.
Today, the PIT count is huge coordinated effort between the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local nonprofits. While every city that receives HUD funding is required to make a PIT count every two years, Washington, DC makes it an annual tradition. Every year, during one night in the last week of January, hundreds of volunteers go out with surveys in hand from 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM counting the people they find outside and asking basic demographic questions. Everyone in shelters and at homeless day programs like Thrive DC are counted as well. The answers to these questions help determine funding priorities for the upcoming year.
The PIT count is done the last week of January because it is the time when shelters are expected to be the most full, making it easier to get an accurate count. Especially in DC, where the city is legally required to provide shelter when the temperature is below 32 degrees, the population sleeping outdoors should be much smaller, easier to find, and more manageable to survey in a limited time.
The survey is designed to be as quick and informative as possible. While it asks basic information like race, sex, and age, it also makes a point to ask persons in their own words what the reason for their homelessness is. The survey also asks if someone is living with medical conditions, receiving any kind of financial assistance, and whether or not they are a veteran.
Everyone! Local homeless service providers act as team leaders and outreach specialists, but volunteers come from all walks of life, with even some homeless persons acting as advocates for their own community. Homelessness is an issue that affects all of us, because it represents a failure of the safety net we rely when tragedy strikes. The volunteers gathered last night bore witness to our commitment to end homelessness in DC not just for those who are chronically homeless, but for everyone who finds themselves without a place to stay at night.
Cold! But it was heartwarming to see everyone come out to support an end to homelessness. More than 300 volunteers stepped up in 2015, six times more than the 50 who were doing the PIT count just a few years ago. Even Mayor Bowser came and said a few words.
Surveying the homeless members of our community at night was a humbling experience. Volunteers were able to see exactly how meager sleeping arrangements were, talk to couples huddled together for warmth, learn people’s names, and hear their stories in their own words.
While the PIT count is an important strategy for shaping homelessness policy, it’s also a powerful experience of meeting our city’s most vulnerable members and seeing where they live. It’s our annual trip out to the margins, where we seek out the people who are too often ignored during the daytime.
This spring, after all the data is collected and tallied, we will have a better sense of what homelessness looks like in DC (no PIT count can be entirely accurate, since many homeless individuals and families stay with friends, family, and in their cars, avoiding the count and going uncounted). But if the PIT count interests you, I encourage you to get involved with your local homeless service provider. We need your help as volunteers, and would like you to get to know the people we serve.