Instead of Merely Counting, Know the Homeless By Name

Last week, while most Americans were sleeping, volunteers in hundreds of U.S. communities were combing their streets for signs of their homeless neighbors. This Congressionally mandated search effort, known as the Point in Time (PIT) count, amounts to a national midnight census in which communities must attempt to document the total number of individuals and families sleeping on their streets and in their shelters. Last year's count, funded largely by local communities, found roughly 610,000 people experiencing homelessness nationwide.

Like so many required exercises, the PIT count is a good idea in desperate need of reinvention. Each year, it produces important data on whether homelessness is rising or falling, but on the ground, this bird's-eye view of the homeless population does little to help local communities end homelessness any more quickly.

I should know -- I helped push for some of the first PIT-style street counts in New York City in the early 2000s. At the time, no authoritative measure existed for the number of people sleeping on the city's streets each night, which made it difficult to know how to allocate resources effectively. Joining with other national advocates, my colleagues and I argued that the best way to get reliable figures for the homeless population was to hit the pavement and count people ourselves.

Together, we helped mobilize volunteers to canvass their neighborhoods block by block, noting each homeless individual they encountered. The result: among the first credible estimates of street homelessness in New York. Around the same time, referencing similar counts in Philadelphia and other cities, Congress mandated that all communities receiving federal funding for homeless assistance conduct biennial street counts.

We learned some interesting things in those first few years. Far fewer New Yorkers were homeless than some had expected, for example, and most were concentrated in a cluster of hot spot areas. But by itself, that information did not help us accelerate housing solutions. Each time we repeated the process, our sense of the numbers improved, but homelessness did not decrease.

We had become the victims of the wrong kind of measurement, the kind that seeks to understand a problem but not ultimately to solve it. It did us little good to know how many New Yorkers were experiencing homelessness if we never asked them who they were or what they needed to become stably housed. For all our good intentions, we were gathering interesting data instead of actionable data.

In many ways, the counts that communities will complete this week are similar. The important data they produce will help the federal government monitor trends and allocate resources, but as in years past, this data will do little to assist the communities that must collect it or the real people it intends to represent. After all, no one experiences homelessness in the aggregate. It is endured by individuals with unique and urgent needs.

Solving homelessness requires a data strategy that is both large-scale enough to draw conclusions and person-specific enough to implement them.

In New York, we eventually learned this lesson and began to shift from simple counting to a more detailed process of gathering the names, histories and circumstances of the people we met. This information helped us flag the most critical cases and identify local, state and federal resources that could end their homelessness.

If communities are serious about ending homelessness, they should adopt a similar tack. It is no longer sufficient to tally up our homeless neighbors and send the numbers off to Washington. Instead, we should use the PIT count as an opportunity to discover exactly who is homeless and precisely what they need to become housed.

Thankfully, many communities are moving in this direction, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the PIT counts, has offered strong support. Rather than merely counting their homeless neighbors, volunteers in these communities are gathering detailed, locally owned information, which they are using to conduct follow-up outreach and to match people to the most appropriate housing options.

As communities integrate these details into their PIT counts, they are fulfilling their federal obligations while collecting locally usable information at the same time. They are also facilitating face-to-face conversations between volunteers and their homeless neighbors, stripping away the lethal anonymity that has allowed so many homeless Americans to die on our streets.

This year, more than 50 communities will combine their PIT counts with detailed, by-name questionnaires, but surprisingly, federal agencies like HUD cannot mandate this change on their own. A Congressional decision to revisit the counts could ensure that more communities followed suit.

In the meantime, local leaders should voluntarily transform their PIT count efforts to ensure that every homeless person on their streets is identified personally and assessed thoroughly.

We will not end homelessness in America until we know every homeless American by name.