There are few people that respond to the call of a panhandler or approach a homeless individual, much less engage in a personal survey in the dead of winter. But that is exactly what happened on January 25, 2012, across the United States, with the Point in Time (PIT) survey. Planned for the coldest night of the year, this annual volunteer-led effort sets out to provide a snapshot of exactly who experiences homelessness. Within a 24-hour period, volunteers comb streets, alleys, fast-food restaurants, parks, and other urban or rural spaces to count and ask personal questions to unsheltered individuals. Additionally, permanent supportive housing programs, transitional housing agencies, hypothermia units, and other service organizations conduct a count of their own.
Collecting data tracks progress and informs service providers, policymakers, the public, and other anti-poverty measures. This data can lead to more accurate program and policy assessment, site-specific development, and greater funding to alleviate homelessness and underserved communities. Typically, a regional report is released in early May by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Nonetheless, there is controversy on how to count those living “doubled up” with friends and family members (people who have lost their job, house, or apartment for various reasons). Such individuals are not considered homeless by the Department of Housing and Urban Development standards and are not addressed in the count.
In DC, over 200 volunteers set out at 930pm to predesignated city neighborhoods. In the 12 year history of PIT in DC, yesterday was the first non-hypothermic evening, raising questions as to whether or not the count would be as accurate with less individuals accounted for in the shelters and more out on the streets. Regardless, volunteers remained diligent in canvassing, and any overlapping of individual surveys would be amended. Questions included age, history of mental illness, current physical disabilities, military status, length of homelessness, and sources of income. In return for their participation, individuals received a gift card to McDonald’s and hand warmers.
Our group set off in Golden Triangle, zigzagging from M to P, 19th to 23rd, and back again. After a slow start, we encountered several individuals sleeping in Dupont Circle. Responses were warm, wary, fatigued, and sometimes scattered. More apparent was the general confusion brought on by the apparition of such a blatant group of outsiders, and our genuine interest in their stories. Some chitchatted and cracked jokes with us while others asked for food or money. Most quickly answered our questions, closed their eyes, and drifted back to their cold and hard slumber.
Special thank you to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the entire Point in Time Coordinating Team, and dedicated volunteers.