Nearly fifty volunteers assembled on Chicago’s West Side to kick off their participation in the 2017 Point-In-Time (PIT) count. I arrived promptly at 8 p.m. with a large cup of coffee and took a seat with three others. Together, we were at team, and we were to hit the streets of Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, at 10pm. None of us had ever taken part in the PIT count, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were excited to be taking part in this important process.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development instituted the Point-In-Time count in 1983 to gain a more accurate understanding of homelessness. While every city is required to execute a PIT count every two years, Chicago makes it an annual tradition. Every January, volunteers from around the city join forces with their local Continuum of Care organization and hit the streets to count and canvass individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness. Once collected, the data provides HUD with a “snapshot” of homelessness that is meant to reveal a service organization’s programmatic progress and gaps in service. Additionally, this glimpse into the demographics of a single night of homelessness plays a distinct role in the financial future of a Continuum of Care by influencing its federal funding.
The mandatory training session began with a discussion about the appropriate ways to recognize and approach people on the street. When evaluating a person’s housing status by sight, we were instructed to “use our best judgement.” When approaching someone on the street, we were to assess the condition of person’s clothes, scan their environment for personal belongings, and to look for other various signs that might reveal their housing status. We were to approach people in groups of three, with the fourth team member waiting in the driver’s seat of the car. One member of the group was to speak, while the other two were there for assistance. Once we had that down, we began reviewing the proper procedure for tallying and surveying.
Accurately calculating the total number of people experiencing homelessness within a community isn’t an easy task. It is important to recognize that there is no fixed set of circumstances that causes a person or family to lose their home, nor is there universal experience with homelessness. A person or family experiencing homelessness doesn’t always look a specific way, nor is homelessness always visible to the naked eye.
All too often, we associate homelessness with its most recognizable form, those living on the street, but there are the more hidden, often invisible, manifestations of homelessness that exist under the radar. Individuals often resort to doubling up, more commonly known as couch surfing, while families often resort to taking shelter in overcrowded homes and other substandard conditions. Moreover, those experiencing homelessness often jump from one inadequate housing situation to the next, staying in shelters and on the streets only part of the time. Although these individuals and families are in a unique and precarious situation that could lead to further housing insecurity, HUD’s snapshot excludes them.
That evening, I sat in a car with three fellow volunteers and cruised down the streets of Austin at a snail’s pace. I took the front passenger seat, or the captain’s seat, as my teammates called it, and was tasked with tracking our location on the map so that we didn’t skip a street. We combed every roadway and alley, oftentimes participating in disjointed conversation because we were preoccupied. As it grew later, the conversations dissipated, so I resumed mulling over the invisibility of those that are doubled up. More specifically, I contemplated how the exclusion of that particular experience of homelessness might affect the overall accuracy of the count. I pondered the ways in which this snapshot only offers a brief, limited look at a precarious situation thousands of Chicagoans are facing in very different ways. This misrepresentation of homelessness not only misinforms federal funding for service organizations, but it can also deeply affect the public perception of homelessness within any given community.
We finished searching our assigned area around 1:30 a.m. and headed back to the PIT headquarters to submit our paperwork and debrief the staff. As I said goodbye to my teammates, I realized this was the first of many more PIT counts in my life. Although I believe the count may not capture the nature of homelessness in the most efficient way, it does its best at capturing the magnitude of the problem. Thus, I’ll be returning next year (with another cup of coffee) to participate in another episode of the Point-In-Time count.
— Scott Tankersley, AmeriCorps VISTA at Housing Action Illinois