City Conducts Annual Count of Persons Experiencing Homelessness in Alexandria
In the predawn hours on January 23, a group of 15 volunteers grabbed coffee and donuts, clipboards with surveys, maps and flashlights and headed out into Alexandria streets and parks as part of the annual Point in Time (PIT) Count of individuals experiencing homelessness in the city.
Each year, communities across the nation participate in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) count, which provides a one-night “snapshot” of people living in emergency shelters or transitional housing as well as those living unsheltered. The count and information gathered through survey questions helps convey the scope of homelessness, identify and assess unmet needs and gaps in services, inform funding and other planning decisions and evaluate progress made in preventing and ending homelessness.
The volunteers that morning participated in the unsheltered count, which entailed walking through parks and wooded areas as well as locations throughout the city where individuals experiencing homelessness were sleeping or seeking shelter, like laundromats, fast food restaurants or underpasses.
When they encountered individuals experiencing homelessness in those areas, the volunteers asked them to participate in the HUD survey as well as sought to find out their level of engagement, if any, with shelters and services in the community. They also handed out zip-lock bags stuffed with hand warmers, socks, mylar blankets and other items along with contact information for staff and services.
“They hit their beats just after 5 a.m.,” says Stefan Caine, who is the Continuum of Care Lead Administrator with the Department of Community and Human Services Office of Community Services (OCS), which provides services and programs to individuals at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
A couple days beforehand, Caine and his team along with Homeless Services Outreach Coordinator Krysta Pearce had precanvased the city and sectioned off the area into five sections, creating a map marked with areas where they located individuals experiencing homelessness as well as areas staff who work year-round with the homeless population identified as common or potential areas.
For Caine and his team, the annual event is not only an opportunity to gather important data, but also the chance to engage with those experiencing homelessness.
“We followed up with everyone we found,” says Caine of both the precanvancing activities as well as the actual PIT Count. “We want to get a sense of what they need, which gives us a chance for further engagement and opportunities to get them hooked up with services to help them transition out of homelessness.”
Those services are part of a “continuum of care” approach to homelessness designed to promote community wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness. OSC and their partners--which range from other City programs and services to national and local nonprofits like Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America Chesapeake, Carpenter’s Shelter and ALIVE!--coordinate together to provide a wide range of services, minimize the trauma associated with homelessness and dislocation, and optimize self-sufficiency among individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
The count also included the number of individuals living in shelters and transitional housing on January 23, including:
Carpenter’s Shelter, which offers emergency shelter, case management, employment and housing services as well as a day shelter that addresses the basic needs of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness
Alexandria Community Shelter, a partnership between OSC and Volunteers of America Chesapeake that offers emergency shelter, case management, employment and behavioral health treatment services
Domestic Violence Program shelter, a residential program providing temporary shelter to victims of domestic violence
Safe Haven, which provides transitional housing and intensive support services for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness
Community Lodgings, which provides transitional housing, affordable housing units and youth education programs
Winter Shelter, a Carpenter’s Shelter program that provides a safe refuge during harsh weather and open every day December to March from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
After the counts each year, Caine and his team compile the data, report it to HUD, share it with other organizations and examine it for insights into homelessness in Alexandria.
The PIT Count data can be really useful for spotting trends, says Caine. In addition, because those being served in the shelters are more connected to services and have provided more robust data than those who are unsheltered, Caine says the data from the shelter count helps his team “chase the origins of homelessness a little further upstream.”
The causes of homelessness include lack of low-income housing, unemployment, decreasing opportunities for work and the erosion of safety net programs. Often people experience the loss of a job or have a health crisis that leaves them choosing between paying the rent or paying for an expensive prescription or medical care.
But the data from the PIT Count only goes so far.
“It is a good snapshot, but it doesn’t offer the clearest, most detailed picture of our community,” Caine explains. “So, we typically try to align it with changes we see throughout the year to flesh out what the PIT Count is showing.”
For example, says Caine, putting the PIT Count data in the context of shelter usage and outreach data from those experiencing homelessness throughout the year can provide insight into why PIT Count numbers go up or down each year--and how the community can better serve the homeless population in Alexandria.
Having Pearce on the team this year was really helpful as well, says Caine. Pearce, who has experience working with the homeless population in Arlington, starting her job two weeks before the count. She joined the team after Outreach Coordinator Dana Woolfolk retired last year. (Read a story about Woolfolk and the 2017 PIT Count.)
“It’s quite a way to get your feet wet in a new community,” says Caine, who appreciated the questions and insights Pearce offered during the whole process.
OCS will release the official PIT Count numbers in May. In the meantime, Caine’s team and their partners will continue to engage those individuals year around, offering the effective and essential safety net services designed to improve their lives and transition them out of homelessness. To learn more about those services and programs aimed at ending homelessness in Alexandria, visit alexandriava.gov/DCHS or any of the partner websites linked to in this article.