Concern for US homeless population as street counts cancelled amid pandemic

The first time Kirk McClain helped with the homeless count in King county, Washington, he himself had been living unsheltered for five years. He said he remembers stepping out at 2am on a surprisingly warm day in January 2014 along with the handful of others he was paired with, and the surreal feeling of looking under bridges and along a highway to search for those living in parallel circumstances to his own.

After three hours, his group identified about 30 people living unsheltered across a 2sq mile stretch of Burien, a small city just south of Seattle, interviewing some about how long they had been homeless, the services they had received, as well as asking them for their age, race and gender.

Similar scenes have played out every year across the county, which includes Seattle, since at least 1980, as part of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (Hud) Point in Time (PIT) Count. But this year, officials determined that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, gathering what is typically more than 1,000 people together to conduct the street count, was simply not possible.

“My gut doesn’t feel good about it because I know how important it is,” said McClain, who is no longer homeless and today works as a residential case manager at Solid Ground, a social service organization in Seattle.

King county is far from alone. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hud announced that it would allow exceptions to some or all of the unsheltered PIT count requirements. As of 5 January, 150 or almost 40% of Continuums of Care, which are geographical regions across the nation, have taken them up on their offer. Officials in Austin, Texas, Los Angeles county, Arizona’s Maricopa county and other areas have announced plans to cancel their outdoor counts altogether.

The agency said in an email to the Guardian that it expects more to request “exceptions or waivers leading up to the end of January”.

The hope is that this will simply be a single-year blip on the biennial street count of homeless people, which is held in January in communities across the nation in return for federal funds. But there are concerns about the potential real-world effects of not conducting the only regularly occurring national count that specifically tallies people out of doors, following a year in which experts predict the homelessness crisis, which is estimated to involve over half a million people, has only become more acute.

Tents for the homeless on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, California on 8 January 2020.
Tents for the homeless on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, California, on 8 January 2020. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images

“We govern by numbers,” said Sara Rankin, founder and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University. “So by not doing the count, we’ve basically lost the ability to make people experiencing homelessness count, both in a statistical and in a political sense.”

She explained that although it was understandable that jurisdictions have opted not to do the count, she had concerns about not having this data following such an unprecedented year.

“Study after study is suggesting that Covid-19 is going to make homelessness worse,” said Rankin. “But because we lack that benchmark, it’s going to be a lot harder for us to be able to tell in the future what those sorts of trends are.”

The count is in no way perfect. It has been widely criticized as being a significant undercount of the homeless population. Some also have questioned the usefulness of only counting this community on a single day each year, and essentially ignoring those who experience it on any other day.

The PIT count also involves the tallying of people experiencing homelessness who are living indoors, and that will go on this year with only slight logistical changes.

Marybeth Shinn, professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University, said it was important to remember that there are other numbers available to help understand the issue, including Hud’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report and the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual Gap Report, tracking the availability of affordable rental housing.

“We have some sense of the scope of the housing problem in this country and if we pay attention to our other metrics, I don’t think it’s critical that we lose the Point in Time count for one year,” explained Shinn, who teaches in Nashville, where she said the city had just received a waiver allowing them not to conduct the count. “But we do have to pay attention to the other metrics.”

Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer for the San Francisco Coalition On Homelessness, said it made sense to cancel the count because of the risks associated with bringing hundreds of people together. San Francisco’s hospitals have been overwhelmed by coronavirus cases in recent weeks and its public health department recently recommended that the city forgo the count because of the pandemic.

“We just got to keep paddling and then once things get more stabilized again, everyone will get back on the track that we were on when it comes to tracking things like this Point in Time count,” she said.

However, Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services, the largest homeless emergency shelter provider in Arizona, said she was worried about the impact of not having these numbers and the accompanying details on subpopulations of unsheltered people, even for one year, could have on planning and finances.

Glow gave the example of a recent effort to open a shelter in the West Valley region of Maricopa county. The PIT count had shown that the number of unsheltered individuals went up by 219% over the last three years in that area, which she said does not have a homeless shelter.

So she and others worked with local lawmakers on a bill that would provide funding for a senior shelter in that area. The effort was ultimately stalled because of the pandemic, but, she said, without those numbers, they would not have known to initiate that process.

Without the new data, “we won’t know where the pockets of the unsheltered population are, to bring services,” she said. “We’ll have to rely on last year’s data.”

But it’s more than the planning and money allocation that will be affected. McClain said he knows all too well that feeling of invisibility that can accompany living unsheltered, and the impact a count like this can have.

He said: “Even down to the simple aspect of someone walking up to you and acknowledging that you’re homeless and that you count, literally count.”

The Guardian

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