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  • The Center for Rural Homelessness

The Value of Summer Point-in-Time Counts

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Jarrett James Lash

May 3, 2023

Each year, during the last few weeks of January, volunteers from across the country take to the streets in an effort to count individuals experiencing homelessness. The annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Count is a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandated program that is planned and implemented locally by Continuum of Care (CoC) leadership. An annual count of people experiencing homelessness who are sheltered in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and safe havens takes place on a single night. Continuums of Care also conduct a count of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness every other year (i.e., odd-numbered years).

The current Point-in-Time Count system provides a single snapshot on an annual basis. Thereafter, HUD packages this data into the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) that is presented to Congress. The snapshot provides the information upon which HUD’s Annual CoC Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) funds are allocated to CoCs across the nation. In 2022, these funds totaled $2.794 billion.

Recently, I was attending a local housing conference where a social services official remarked, “To be honest, I don’t know why we have to do the count on one of the coldest nights of the year.” However, there are some clear potential reasons behind this. In many places across the country, communities do not maintain a shelter year-round, opting instead to only open warming shelters during the winter months to provide a place for unhoused individuals to seek temporary shelter. This CoC represents one such community. Nationally, warming (or emergency) shelters comprise roughly 32 percent of system beds.1 Though these shelters are not open year-round, “HUD considers extreme weather shelters as dedicated homeless inventory” during the Point-in-Time Count and they can contribute to lowering a community’s recorded number of “unsheltered” individuals.2 As warming shelters close for the season, the availability of services for unhoused individuals in countless communities lessens. This week, 30 individuals in Augusta, GA will no longer be with a roof over their heads as the Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Shelter closes its doors on May 1st.3 A Lutheran Church in Juneau, AK, will be closing its 70-bed warming shelter for the season and the nearby campground will re-open for the season to allow unhoused individuals a place to pitch their tents.4 In both circumstances, many of those individuals would now be labeled as unhoused if the PIT Count was conducted tomorrow. In 2015, the lead of the Rochester/Monroe County Homeless Continuum of Care noted this situation. In a 2015 article, Amy D'Amico said, “This week, there were over 70 people staying at Sanctuary Village, the temporary winter quarters for many homeless people in the Rochester area. On Tuesday, there were none.” This is because the New York State Department of Homeless Services has a policy called “Code Blue” which requires localities to open doors to a warming shelter for winter nights when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below, including wind-chill, between 4:00 PM and 8:00 AM. Their CoC decided it behooved them to conduct additional PIT Counts to provide their organizations with more actionable information to capture the complex crisis.

Amy D'Amico led the Rochester/Monroe County Homeless Continuum of Care as its coordinator from 2014 to 2017. She said that the major reason they were successful in launching a summer PIT Count was that their CoC is a fairly active one, with over 80 organizations and countless volunteers willing to lend their energy to the initiative. Their summer PIT Count identified 50 more individuals than the January PIT Count (35 in the winter; 85 in the summer). While this may not be the case for every community, Ms. D’Amico strongly believed that this would be a similar trend in other Midwest and Northeast communities. Though this data wouldn’t be submitted to HUD to be compiled in the AHAR, they sought to provide actionable information on the seasonal dynamics of the unhoused population for their internal edification. Furthermore, Ms. D’Amico said it helped yield positive results in receiving additional funding from private foundations, from FEMA during the pandemic and the New York State Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative (ESSHI), as they were able to present data that they felt more accurately represented the real number of unhoused individuals in their community.

Many social service providers across the nation already have thinly stretched resources. Thus, it is unlikely that many CoCs will take the step to conduct a Summer Point-in-Time Count without the mandate of HUD. However, highly functioning CoCs should consider conducting bi-annual Point-in-Time Counts without the mandate of HUD. This support data collection that provides more depth and nuance to inform actionable decisions at a local level. Homelessness is a complex societal phenomenon with multiple prongs and a single yearly snapshot is insufficient in capturing the reality of seasonal service dynamics. Billions of dollars of funding are relying on data collected only once a year. Multiple Point-in-Time Counts annually could be one pathway to uncovering solutions to decreasing homelessness, both at the local and federal levels. 1. 2. 3. 4.

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