Counting an Invisible Population

written by naehblog
September 24, 2013

Today's blog post was written by Thomas Friedlander, Alliance research intern.


As winter approaches, communities nationwide will soon begin preparing for their local Point-in-Time (PIT) Counts held in January.  Every year volunteers across the nation take to the streets to find and count homeless individuals and families in their communities. These counts have become a critical instrument in measuring changes in homeless populations. The homeless youth population, however, has been a particularly hard population to measure.

It’s hard to identify youth on the streets through typical counts of unsheltered for a number of reasons. They congregate in different areas at different times. They don’t hang out at the same place as people who are in an older age range. They’re often less willing to disclose that they’re experiencing homelessness or may not even identify as homeless. They also may work harder to try to blend in with peers who aren’t homeless.

But accurately tracking youth homelessness is critically important in providing services, and the past few years have seen an increased focus on gathering data on youth homelessness. In January 2013, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) undertook an initiative to improve the quality of surveying practices particularly with regard to youth called Youth Count!. Then, In July 2013, the Urban Institute published a report detailing findings in Youth Count! Initiative and recommended communities take the following steps:

  • Use outreach groups to collect information. Alongside providing resources and services to homeless youth, local outreach groups should keep a record of the people they serve in order to provide more information during counts.
  • Use social media. Local advocates and outreach groups should use social media to publicize available resources and events for at-risk and homeless youth.
  • Find and survey local hotspots. A ‘hotspot’ is an area of a town or community where homeless youths are known to congregate. These areas will most likely have the most visible homeless population, so it is important to concentrate on hotspots.

If you are interested in learning more about youth homelessness, the Alliance has compiled a wealth of information over the past few years on effective methods of counting homeless youth, including data points from past PIT counts. For communities planning their next count, we have available a toolkit that covers how to conduct the best count possible, as well community examples of successful PIT counts, including Washington, DC and San Jose, CA.

Photo by Dustin Ground.


Thomas Friedlander is a research Intern for the Fall of 2013. Originally from New York, he has been working in the field of homelessness for the past seven years. His previous experience includes assisting case managers and performing shelter capacity analysis. He is in his junior year at American University, studying history and economics.