Photo by Jon Tyson

Every year Dallas does a point-in-time count as part of a nationwide effort to measure homelessness, changing trends and progress toward the long-term goal of reducing and eliminating homelessness.

How it works, in our neighborhood, volunteers register, usually in teams that choose an area of a grid that covers Dallas and Colin County (Dallas and Colin typically partner on this). The Dallas/Colin County count covers a geographical area of 1,712 square feet, according to 2021’s report.

Volunteers work with staffers from Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and street outreach officials — professionals who work with the homeless population and releated services — to survey the underpasses, parks and other places where those experiencing homelessness sleep. The volunteers report back with numbers. People sleeping in emergency shelters, safe havens and transitional housing also are counted.

The idea is that counties all across the country do the same, providing a rough sketch of the state of homelessness at that moment in time.

Dallas/Colin County’s count is set to begin at 5 p.m. Feb. 24. 

Volunteers are needed, and you can participate by registering here. Frisco, Richardson, Sunnyvale and Balch Springs have their counts slated for the same night.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees the PIT count and requires counties to conduct counts at least every two years.

Many counties across the country called off counts last year due to COVID, which HUD allowed by way of a waiver that is still in effect this year.

MDHA, taking necessary precautions, preceded last February.

“Due to complications related to pandemic concerns we know not all unsheltered persons can be identified in a short period of time,” note the authors of last year’s report. “However these results do give a snapshot however incomplete of what is happening in the area.”

While Dallas is doing its best to soldier on with its PIT counts, scheduling the coming count after a brief postponement, almost half of the country is not participating.

So far in 2022, 175 Continuums of Care (CoCs) — local bodies such as MDHA that coordinate services for homeless families and oversee the counts — have asked for permission to postpone or cancel the PIT count this month, according to HUD.

That means about 45% of jurisdictions won’t be providing an estimate.

According to a Bloomberg CityLab article (CityLab stories are not behind a paywall) the pandemic-prompted problems with the count at a national level both exposes the weakness of the count — its infrequency — and also presents an opportunity to change the way the count is conducted.

CityLab‘s housing reporters Max Reyes and Kriston Capps talk to some nonprofits with ideas for getting to “functional zero,” eliminating chronic homelessness, city by city, using data that is more reliable and informative.

Those efforts — spearheaded by a NYC-based group called Community Solutions and which reportedly are working — involve the cooperation of government agencies, shelters, caseworkers, clinics and nonprofits and ensuring they all have access to the same data as they assess and manage housing instability.

“If we’re really going to drive down to functional zero where homelessness is rare and brief, a community’s functional response system needs to have data to do that,” one community health strategist tells the publication.

Still, according to CityLab, for all its flaws, the PIT Count provides an idea of what homelessness looks like at both the local and national levels — “something that’s especially critical this year as the pandemic continues to strain the U.S. economy.”

As United Way’s Ashley Brundage, executive director of housing stability, told us when we reported on evictions, there are things we have learned during the pandemic — largely related to data collected that helps to more effectively distribute resources — that we need to keep in place and put to use.