Point in Time Count of Homeless Austinites Returns

City to run census after two years

Photo by Jana Birchum

For the first time in two years, volunteers will head out into the streets of Austin early Saturday morning, looking under highway overpasses, scouring wooded areas, and checking behind buildings in an attempt to count as many people as possible who are living in Travis County without shelter.

The massive effort, known as the Point in Time count, is coordinated by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition – which serves as the lead agency for the Austin-Travis County Continuum of Care (CoC), manager of federal funding to combat homelessness. The PIT count is a census of people living out of doors, the results of which are compiled into a report by the U.S. Depart­ment of Housing and Urban Devel­op­ment and sent to Congress to determine how much federal funding each CoC should receive in its next budget. In Austin, that number has shrunk as a proportion of the overall amount of funding devoted to ending homelessness, thanks to increased spending from the city of Austin and Travis County, and especially thanks to the unprecedented level of funding generated through the Finding Home ATX initiative.

The PIT count is not a particularly effective or accurate way of taking a census. HUD requirements are such that volunteers must actually see a person to contribute to the count – even if a group finds every indication that someone is living in a particular place, such as by locating a tent and other belongings, they're not allowed to add to the count. That's a major flaw in the methodology, because a person's unhoused status can often fluctuate. Even people who have lived for years on the street occasionally spend nights in hotel rooms, emergency shelters, or crashing with a friend. If they happen to do that the night of the count, they go uncounted. This reporter's firsthand experience participating in the 2020 count is a testament to how spotty the PIT count can be.

Despite its flaws, HUD continues to rely on the PIT because it's a practice every CoC, large and small, can conduct. Some communities, like Austin and Travis County, have more sophisticated ways of taking a census – such as using ECHO's Homeless Response System Dashboard, which tracks the number of unhoused people living in or out of shelter on a monthly basis – but most do not. For the past two years, HUD allowed CoC leads like ECHO to submit population estimates using the more accurate counting methods, but for 2023, they and every other CoC will return to the search-and-find method.

ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica said the PIT count is still a critical exercise for the people who provide services to unhoused individuals, for the Austin community, and of course for those living without shelter. "In places like Austin and in Texas, it's important for unhoused folks to know that a community of people care about their well-being and will fight for them," Mollica told us. "The more people we can get out there to have face-to-face interactions with a community that too often goes overlooked, the better. Everyone benefits."

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