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More Than a Number: Point-in-Time Counts Are Crucial Data

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Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires Continuum of Care (CoC) organizations to count the number of people experiencing homelessness in the geographic area that they serve through the Point-in-Time (PIT) count.

Conducted by most CoC organizations during the last ten days in January, the PIT count includes people served in shelter programs every year. In addition, in every odd-numbered year, these organizations are responsible for counting people who are unsheltered. The effort involves mobilizing staff and volunteers who canvass the streets and other settings to identify and count people experiencing homelessness.

Data collected during the PIT count is critical to effective planning and performance management toward the goal of ending homelessness for each community and for the nation as a whole. Counting those who are unsheltered ensures that many of the people with the highest needs are taken into account in community planning. In fact, the benefit of conducting a comprehensive count that includes an unsheltered count is so significant that many communities do so every year, including Boston, Denver, Miami, New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Diego, and many others.

The PIT count is also the main data source for measuring progress on the goals of Opening Doors, the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. To see PIT count data in action, visit Homeless Analytics Initiative, a joint effort of HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Through the PIT count, communities identify important data on the general homeless population and subpopulations, including veterans, families, chronically homeless individuals, and youth. These counts help us all identify where progress is being made and where redoubling of effort is required, both geographically and for different subpopulations. Learn more about Opening Doors at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (PDF | 3.1 MB).

Data about the prevalence of homelessness in each community can help galvanize local responses to accelerating progress on ending homelessness. But the count can be more than just a count, too. The PIT count also provides an opportunity for CoC organizations to amplify the information they gather with more in-depth surveys of individuals by using tools like the Vulnerability Index and partnerships with a 100,000 Homes campaign, if they are part of a campaign community.

Most importantly, communities can work with outreach teams, and healthcare and service providers to use the count as an opportunity to connect people experiencing homelessness with housing and vital services. A homeless registry—a list of people experiencing homelessness, identified by name—has helped many communities connect people experiencing homelessness to housing and services more quickly, by ensuring that those resources are targeted to the most vulnerable populations. In these ways, this year’s count can help reduce next year’s count toward zero.

Counting Youth Experiencing Homelessness

The number of young people who experience homelessness each year is largely unknown. Often called an "invisible population," young people experiencing homelessness tend to stay with friends, often avoid adult services, and may be reluctant to be identified by authorities. These factors make it difficult for communities to include them in their annual PIT counts and to engage them in services.

To improve efforts to identify youth during the 2013 PIT count, nine communities, four federal agencies, and eighteen funders launched an initiative called Youth Count!. The Urban Institute process evaluation of Youth Count! identified promising practices and challenges across the diverse sites and approaches used. How youth are approached and asked questions matters. The process evaluation documented the benefits of involving youth in designing and pre-testing the approaches to the counts, and engaging youth who had experienced homelessness in identifying outreach locations and ways to approach youth successfully.

The federal agencies involved in Youth Count! issued a joint statement to encourage CoC organizations, runaway and homeless youth providers, and state and local education liaisons to collaborate around planning and conducting their 2014 PIT count. The benefits of such collaboration extend beyond the PIT count, and can assist communities as they strive to improve service delivery to youth experiencing homelessness.

Counting Veterans Experiencing Homelessness

Similarly, communities can benefit from proven approaches to identify veterans among people experiencing homelessness. VA has recommended better ways to ask people experiencing homelessness about their military service to help assess their potential eligibility for VA resources for veterans experiencing homelessness.

To participate in an upcoming PIT count, find the CoC organization nearest you using the HUD Exchange. For many communities, the count represents a great opportunity to engage volunteers in local efforts to end homelessness.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 01/18/2022