PIT Counts: Why They Are Important and What they Tell Us

written by Sam Batko
January 28, 2014

Graphic from the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

Communities across the country are in the process of conducting their annual Point-in-Time Counts (PIT Counts) this week. This year is not a year where communities are required to do an unsheltered count, but following the trends of the past several years, I’d expect that about two-thirds of you are doing an unsheltered count in addition to a census of those in emergency shelters and transitional housing. About two weeks ago, we published a post discussing the basics of PIT Counts. Today, we’re going to discuss why we do them and how the data is useful.

While HUD requires PIT Counts, the real reason to do them is them is that they help your community. More about that in a moment, but first, a quick little refresher on what the PIT Counts are and are not:

  • PIT Counts are counts of the number of people in a community who are literally homeless—people who are living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and in places not meant for human habitation.
  • PIT Counts provide a community with a unique snapshot of their unsheltered homeless population provided by no other measure.
  • PIT Counts are not a measure of all need in a community.

Back to how PIT Counts help your community. In addition to assessing the size of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population, PIT Counts allow for some limited analysis of different subpopulations, including unaccompanied children and youth, survivors of domestic violence, veterans, and chronically homeless persons. Over time, when conducted with the same methodology, PIT Counts allow a community to assess progress in ending homelessness.

And, perhaps most importantly, PIT Counts recognize the importance of homelessness as a community and social issue and bring attention to the people experiencing it. PIT Counts are a mobilizing tool that communities can use by creating volunteer opportunities and can also be used to build political will around a growing problem or successful solutions.

All of that being said, PIT Counts have limitations. They don’t count every single person, they don’t tell us about why people are homeless or about their experiences while homeless, and they don’t tell us about people at risk of homelessness. These limitations do not invalidate PIT Counts, but instead highlight the need for additional information sources to supplement the information provided by PIT Counts.

Communities should use their Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) data to track trends in homelessness over time, their education data to examine at-risk families that are doubled up in motels, and data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to examine unemployment, poverty, housing costs, and other factors that can make households at risk of becoming homeless.

Ultimately, the PIT Count doesn’t tell us everything about need in communities or in the US, but it does provide some very valuable information as to the scope of homelessness, particularly around the unmet need represented by the number of unsheltered people on the streets, and the progress being made in ending homelessness. And, they can be helpful within communities for building political will and community mobilizing.