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One, Two... 664,414: Calculating Homelessness in America
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In 2008, homeless censuses around the country calculated that, on a single night in January, there were 664,414 sheltered and unsheltered people homeless in America. In this article Melissa Martin of the PATH Technical Assistance Center gives a first-hand account of the December 2009 Boston Homeless Census.

For the 30th consecutive year, Bostonians made their way downtown on a December night to participate in the annual Boston Homeless Census. Some 350 volunteers filed into the basement of the City Hall and assembled into 40 teams to count and interview individuals experiencing homelessness on the streets of Boston.

I was initially reluctant to participate in a homeless count. It felt intrusive to me. Approaching and interviewing someone who had set up a place to sleep for the night was uncomfortable; I equated it to walking uninvited into somebody’s living room. However, my discomfort eased when I arrived and learned that many consumers, and former consumers, regularly volunteered for and served as team leaders in the Boston count. This reassured me that the count would be carried out respectfully, with sensitivity towards those experiencing homelessness.

My team was assigned to an area of Boston that has dorms, rows of student apartments, parking lots with attendants, and well-lit streets. Not exactly an appealing place to camp out for the night. Though, I cannot think of anywhere I would want to spend the night outside in the Boston winter.

As we searched our area, other teams simultaneously surveyed the city and approached individuals who appeared to be homeless. All identified individuals were offered transportation to an emergency shelter and provided medical services, if needed. If an individual was willing to answer a few questions, basic demographic information was collected.

In the end, my team only encountered one potential homeless person. He was sitting at a table in a fast food restaurant, using the hood of his coat as a pillow and his arm to shield out the light. The gravity of his situation struck me as I realized he was trying to get some rest before what would likely be a long, cold night. We decided against disturbing this gentleman to ask the census questions, made a note on our paperwork, and continued our quest.

The volunteers ended the night back at City Hall where we turned in our counts. I hoped our count of one might be a good sign for this year’s numbers. However, the 2008 count showed an 11% increase in homelessness in the city compared to 2007 and Jim Greene, Director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission, worries that the 2009 count will yield an even higher number.

After my experience with the count, I feel that homeless counts can provide important lessons for anyone working in the human service field. Even for seasoned veterans of homeless services, the count can be a reminder of the important work that they do and the struggles of their clients. As someone fairly new to the field, it provided me the opportunity to reflect on the magnitude of homelessness and the reality of having no place to find shelter on a cold December night.

Background on Point-in-Time Counts

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began requiring all Continuum of Care communities to conduct a biennial point-in-time (PIT) count, or homeless census, in 2003. Some communities, like Boston, have long standing traditions.  Most PIT counts are carried out during the last seven calendar days in January. PIT’s are generally limited to a twenty-four hour time period to avoid duplicate counts and include information from shelters as well as street counts. Communities are only required to report the number of people, housing status, and geographic locations of individuals counted but many communities will add subpopulation information to their PIT, such as Boston’s collection of information on veterans, youth, and elderly individuals.

From local Continuums-of-Care to the Federal government, many different kinds of stakeholders depend on point-in-time numbers to make funding and policy decisions. Additionally, estimates of the numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness reveal trends in homelessness, i.e. who is experiencing homelessness and when there are decreases and increases in homelessness in the nation. This analysis can reveal important information about the nature of homelessness and the needs of those who are homeless.

How to get involved in your local Point-in-Time Count

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