Each year, every Continuum of Care must conduct a Point-in-Time (PIT) count of people experiencing homelessness in their service area. Volunteers spend one night in January walking around and recording the number of people without shelter. PIT count data is reported to HUD and is crucial in determining the need for homeless services in a particular community as well as the amount of federal funding an organization will receive to prevent and alleviate homelessness.

The annual PIT count for Lake County is coordinated by Lake County Coalition for the Homeless. This year, with the help of VISTA member Sam McDonnell, a record number of volunteers gathered to record, interview, and offer assistance to people experiencing homelessness.


Sam sorts through the many donations from Lake County communities.

Housing Action Illinois: How did you prepare for the event?

Sam McDonnell: The PIT Count was a crash course in coordinating an event, mobilizing volunteers, and organizing donations. Beginning in early October, I led a planning group of staff from local homeless service agencies in creating an outreach campaign to recruit volunteers and secure donated supplies. In the month leading up to the event, much of my time was dedicated to forming 19 teams of volunteers. While it seemed simple at first, I learned that many moving parts make mobilization a demanding task.

By soliciting for donations, I also helped prepare reusable bags for the night of the PIT count that contained some basic supplies (like water, nonperishable food, blankets, and winter items) to help make life a bit more comfortable for people sleeping outside. I was expecting to expend a lot of effort, but donations flooded into the office with just some basic outreach. From government employees to local high school classes, I received help from all over the county and it was encouraging to see a community so ready to give.

I also learned a lot about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and created a map that divided the entirety of Lake County into reasonable search areas. I traveled for hours with the county’s only street outreach worker to mark areas on the GIS map where people were known to sleep outside. Volunteers were able to access the map I created through a smartphone app on the night of the PIT Count to better understand the area they were assigned and assist their search by pointing out specific places they should focus on.

Housing Action Illinois: What was successful about this event?

Sam McDonnell: PIT Counts gather data that is critical in understanding homelessness nationwide.  However, I think our greatest success went beyond just collecting high-quality data. As I see it, the PIT Count was successful because of the perspective it provided volunteers. This event was an opportunity to remind the residents of Lake Countywhich is known by many for its affluent neighborhoodsthat people do sleep outside in the community and that action needs to be taken to end this. Even to volunteers who are seasoned homeless service providers, this event offers a real glimpse into the conditions that unsheltered people experience every night.

Housing Action Illinois: What has been the most rewarding part of being a VISTA so far?

Sam McDonnell: I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to support every part of the homeless services system in Lake County. I participate in decision-making bodies that develop strategies to best serve the homeless population, and I also impact the work of front line staff members who are ending homelessness one client at a time. Working as a VISTA in the field of homelessness has exposed me to clients in the most urgent need I’ve seen, but it has also exposed me to people that define the compassion and resiliency of the human spirit. I love being a VISTA because I’m able to spend my days working alongside local champions in the fight to end homelessness and strive for equality.

For supervisor Brenda O’Connell, having a VISTA coordinate the PIT Count allowed Lake County Coalition for the Homeless the capacity to try out new approaches. “This year, thanks to Sam’s dedication and work, we implemented two new smartphone apps to assist with survey collections and navigation, accepted donations and distributed kits for the first time, and had a record number of volunteers participate,” Brenda said.

Brenda also emphasized how the impact of the event went far beyond the count itself. “The information our volunteers gathered will help us develop housing solutions for the future,” Brenda said. “But even more importantly, the connections they made last night directly impact the people they were able to assist. Connecting someone to the services they need may be enough to end chronic homelessness for that one individual, which is potentially saving a life.”

— Sam McDonnell, AmeriCorps VISTA at Lake County Coalition for the Homeless