Humanizing Homeless Data

Every year during the last 10 days in January, communities around the country conduct an annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count of people experiencing homelessness. In the State of Washington, the PIT Count will take place this Friday, January 25th. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities receiving federal funds to conduct a PIT count, and has since 2005. The PIT counts are important as they give policymakers, researchers, service providers, and advocates working to end homelessness a sense of where progress is being made and where additional resources are urgently needed. 

PIT count methodologies have improved over the years, including adding surveys to better understand why someone became homeless, where they were living before becoming homeless, and what the needs of people experiencing homelessness are. This information is important for many reasons, including increasing public awareness on the complexities of homelessness beyond what is visible in the community. 

There remain limitations to PIT counts, especially for unsheltered counts where there is more variation in methodology, levels of community coordination efforts, and more external variables including weather. In King County, where I live, the PIT count of people who are homeless and unsheltered is quite robust. Hundreds of volunteers gather at deployment locations at 2am and head out in teams to a designated area to conduct an unduplicated count of people who are sleeping in doorways, under bridges, in tents, vehicles, etc.  

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During the years I worked with people who were experiencing homelessness, severe mental illness, and substance use, I led a team of PIT count volunteers through a Seattle greenbelt alongside and underneath an elevated section of Interstate 5. The experience was equivalent to hiking, an activity I very much enjoy, but different in that this was a 3-mile urban hike, in the dark, with loud ‘thud-thuds’ every time a car passed, with an increased awareness of both creatures and people in the surrounding woods. My designated area was just south of an area notoriously known as “The Jungle”. The Jungle was an unsanctioned encampment for homeless people for over 20 years before a shooting in 2016 led to officials fencing it off and attempting to resettle over 400 people living there. 

 Homelessness continues to be a crisis in the Pacific Northwest and many communities throughout the country. It is a crisis that I think is hard to understand without personal experience or a direct connection. I still think of the people we found living in that greenbelt area, especially when the narrative of homelessness as a choice arises.

Homelessness is also an issue that will take broad community efforts to address. I encourage you to search for the Point-in-Time count in your community to learn more about homelessness where you live and to consider getting involved in community efforts such as the PIT count to learn more about your homeless community members. 

Karin Ellis