During the last 10 days of January, in communities across the United States, continuum-of-care agencies (CoCs) conduct a Point in Time (PIT) count. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the PIT count is the “count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons carried out on one night ….” The information collected helps policymakers and CoCs better fund and serve the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Officials in the city where I live tasked an experienced street outreach agency with coordinating this year’s effort. Between 9:00-11:30 p.m., volunteers worked in groups to conduct interviews with individuals living in various encampments across the city. Although my colleagues at Policy Research Associates are doing wonderful work in this area through the SOAR TA Center and the Homeless and Housing Resource Center, I was unaware of the PIT count until this year. Here are a few reflections about my experience.

I don’t know my neighbors well enough. In a speech given during a Shabbat Tzedek (sabbath of justice) to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our mayor asked residents to care more about who our neighbors are and less about what our neighbors are doing.  I received her words as an invitation (and an admonishment) to get to know our most marginalized neighbors, who are often ignored or (even worse) complained about. Meeting and interviewing individuals for the PIT count gave me an opportunity to walk in communities outside my own and to look people in the eye as I listened to their stories.

More is not always better. One hundred fifty PIT count volunteers crowded into a library auditorium on a rainy night to receive essential items for anyone we encountered in need. Our hosts happily proclaimed that the volunteer count had doubled since 2020. The audience cheered. What I later experienced was that our group of 10 volunteers, 2 police officers, and 4 cars was more than enough to frighten everyone in the area (housed and unhoused) to which we were assigned. We finished canvassing early.

People are resourceful. Some of the encampments I encountered were exactly as I anticipated, and some were not. As we walked along railroads and under bridges, there were sophisticated arrangements of people’s living spaces. I saw connected tents, some with generators and televisions. I saw encampments with wires connected to neighboring houses, indicating some level of knowledge and cooperation between unhoused and housed neighbors. We were told that the source of our list of locations came from individuals and businesses calling agencies to get help for people in encampments nearby. I also noticed systems of security as people shielded some friends and areas from further interference.

Informed consent is tricky. A trauma-informed approach to data collection requires researchers to empower participants to retain their sense of control by choosing to provide, or withhold, genuinely informed consent. PIT training volunteers were trained (1) to ask permission before we enter someone’s living space, (2) to briefly explain the PIT count, and (3) to ask participants for consent to be interviewed while providing them the opportunity to decline to answer any question. Our group was assigned to an under-resourced area that is historically Black and Latinx and highly surveilled by the police. The two police officers leading our group announced our presence with flashlights while shouting, “Police, make yourselves known.” To be fair, the officers’ role was to escort a group of strangers through this neighborhood, not to assist with the count. The power imbalance of asking for consent while representing an agency that provides housing assistance with armed officers nearby caused me to bungle my first survey. I opted to complete the rest of my surveys by observation only. This alternative didn’t require me to ask sensitive questions but limited my ability to capture information that could be important to know.

PIT counts might be a harmful underestimate. According to a report prepared for Congress, more than half a million people in the United States did not have a regular, sheltered, nighttime residence in 2022 (HUD, 2022). My street count experience made me appreciate how much this Congressional report could be underestimating the magnitude and character of people without stable, habitable housing. Volunteers in my group could only conduct the interviews in English. We couldn’t capture people working the night shift or spending the night in hospitals. And although the PIT count might capture housed and unhoused people who have exhausted their resources, it does not account for people who are able to temporarily sleep with family, friends, or places of worship/businesses. Missed interviews like these unintentionally compound harmful stereotypes we have about the issue of homelessness and about people who find themselves without stable housing.

Like many Americans, I live in an area where gentrification outpaces the creation of quality, affordable housing. According to HUD’s PIT count data in my state, the overall count of unhoused individuals between 2021 and 2022 increased by 28%. I am bracing myself for the final 2023 results. Our mayor asked citizens to donate 5 extra hours of volunteer service a month to CoC agencies that support people experiencing homelessness. One hundred fifty people said yes on a cold night in the pouring rain, which is a hopeful beginning. This day of service showed me how much work needs to be done and how much more I need to learn.