Counting Homelessness - the 2010 point-in-time counts

written by naehblog
January 26, 2010


I’m Caroline Wagner, and I’m the newest addition to the Alliance staff – Nan Roman’s new assistant. This is my very first blogpost – and it’s about something that I’ve been interested in since I started working in the housing and homelessness field.

As anyone on the Alliance staff will tell you, accurate, comprehensive data about homelessness is both critical to creating effective policy and hard to come by. And one of the most reliable, most regular pieces of data mandated nationally is the January point-in-time counts.

In the last week of January – read: this week – communities across the country conduct a count to gauge the number of people experiencing homelessness in their area. This information, mandated every other year by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a prerequisite to receiving homeless assistance funding. Counts data is aggregated and analyzed by HUD and local governments across the country. The Department releases a national report of their findings based on these counts in late summer.

So the question plaguing me was this: how exactly are these extensive, seemingly impossible counts conducted?

The answer is surprisingly simple.

It’s a lot like you’d expect – heavy legwork by community officials, local leaders, and service providers. Volunteers comb sidewalks, shelters, and soup kitchens counting each and every person experiencing homelessness.

For many larger cities, methodology gets even more sophisticated in an effort to ensure accuracy.

Los Angeles, California – which alone accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s homeless population – is a good example.

In 2009 , the city took 10 days and 3,200 workers to cover the 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County. LA officials worked with bio-statisticians to ensure the process would yield the most accurate results.

A street count was conducted by volunteers – these volunteers were given a randomized, predetermined route to ensure that no two volunteers would accidently cover the same space. The survey itself took about 15 minutes per individual counted, and participants were given a $5 food voucher as an incentive. A similar system was used for counting and surveying individuals in shelters. Los Angeles has also employed volunteers to man phone banks, counting individuals living in backyards and garages who might otherwise be homeless. Cities like New York and Toronto, have even utilized decoys, organizing volunteers to feign homelessness and note how often they’re counted to evaluate the accuracy of the count.

As difficult as these counts can be, the data is essential for determining federal and local funding levels for homeless services, tracking effective programs and policies, and accurately illustrating the scope of the homelessness problem to the public. Good data is the cornerstone of good policy, as it’s impossible to find an answer for a question that isn’t accurately defined.

This is just one question that I’ve answered in the first two weeks of my tenure at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. I’m confident that it’s the first of many more answered to come.

If you have a question – however seemingly simple – don’t hesitate to give us a shout here, on our Facebook page fan page, via Twitter, or through old-fashioned email.