Why the point-in-time count matters in the fight against homelessness

Every January, hundreds of volunteers fan out across Travis County in the wee hours of the morning to count the number of people living on the streets.

It’s tough work. It’s early, it’s cold and volunteers have to attend a two-hour training session before being certified to participate in the search, which aims to count every homeless person on the streets, in emergency shelters, in transitional housing and in safe havens in the county on a single night.

But the annual point-in-time count, which takes place Saturday, is crucial for the area’s fight against homelessness, and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition is calling for volunteers to help in this year’s effort.

“We need to know if there are a lot of people on the street,” said Ann Howard, executive director of the group commonly known as ECHO. “The count has been coming down even though we’ve doubled the number of volunteers. … I’m very curious if this year it goes up. … But the other thing is if it’s not, it’s just another opportunity for the community to understand that we can house people who need it. Austin isn’t facing an unsolvable problem.”

Last year, the count turned up 1,877 homeless people in the Austin-Travis County area, a number that has been dropping for the past four years.

The annual count is required for the area to receive the millions of dollars in government funds that help Austin-area agencies get people off the streets. Volunteers are sent to key areas in downtown, the rural parts of the county and the suburbs to make the count as wide-reaching as possible.

It’s also a key measure of progress for homelessness initiatives, such as last year’s “OneKeyATX” campaign, which aimed to end veteran homelessness in Austin by the end of 2015. The campaign, heralded by Mayor Steve Adler, helped get 388 homeless veterans off the street and into housing in the calendar year, according to the mayor’s office.

But as we get closer to the day of the count, ECHO finds itself significantly short of the 600 volunteers it needs. On Friday, the coalition was 145 short of its goal.

So the group is stepping up its call for more volunteers, and appealing to what it hopes is the community’s willingness to help the less fortunate and the curiosity about how they live.

“It’s a very interesting experience,” Howard said. “The first time I did it, I went to a greenbelt and ended up visiting with some (homeless) campers. They had very interesting lives and stories and were very welcoming. Who knew?”

The point in time count also has its critics, including local nonprofit House the Homeless, which is run by a military veteran who was once homeless. The count, critics say, only happens during a few hours on a random day of the year, which couldn’t possibly account for the area’s entire homeless population.

And because it focuses on those living in the streets and in shelters, critics say, it could completely miss people who are recently or temporarily homeless and are living in a motel, a car or at a relative or friend’s home even though the count asks people if this is their situation.

Howard acknowledges that the count is limited, but said it allows groups working on homelessness to make comparisons on year-to-year data. And, she pointed out, the actual connection of homeless people with services doesn’t depend on the count itself. But the funding for it does.

Bottom line: there are flaws with the count, yes, but it is, after all, required.

So if you’re looking to do something tangible to help area groups combat homelessness, this seems like a good place to start. And maybe that will open the door to more community involvement in this struggle, and possibly better gauges of the area’s actual homeless count.

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