Volunteers spent a night counting the homeless. Is that the best way to collect data?

·4 min read

Pierce County conducted its annual one-night count of those experiencing homelessness on Thursday, but some in the provider community question its accuracy as the county bolsters other data collection efforts.

Concerns from homeless service providers have increased in light of recent clearings of encampments.

Sonja Nikiema, a Point in Time Count volunteer, talks with a person living out of their car on the side of East I Street in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
Sonja Nikiema, a Point in Time Count volunteer, talks with a person living out of their car on the side of East I Street in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Dozens of volunteers head out at the beginning of the year to count the number of people living outside and conduct the Point-In-Time Count.

During one 24-hour period, they visit encampments, common overnight parking spaces and trails. They ask those living unhoused their age, race, why they are experiencing homelessness and for how long, and hand out sanitation baggies with masks, hand warmers and hand sanitizer.

The Point-In-Time Count is required by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development in order to receive funding. Pierce County receives $6.4 million annually to fund programs like Rapid Rehousing, Permanent Supportive Housing, emergency shelters and outreach, said communications director Libby Catalinich said.

In the last four years, the Point-In-Time Count has fluctuated: 1,628 unhoused people counted in 2018; 1,486 in 2019; 1,897 in 2020; and 1,005 in 2021.

Point-in-Time Count volunteers stock up on supplies to give out to homeless people as they do their annual census of people living unhoused in Pierce County on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
Point-in-Time Count volunteers stock up on supplies to give out to homeless people as they do their annual census of people living unhoused in Pierce County on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Orlando Stumvoll works for Comprehensive Life Resources. He told The News Tribune that in his six years of counting, it’s never been accurate but that it needs to be done. Weather, time of the month, and number of volunteers are all variables that can impact the number.

“The importance is to be able to have the money and resources so when these people are ready, we have the help ready for them,” Stumvoll said.

The count is seen as a “snapshot” of homelessness, but some service providers are leery of the data.

Maureen Howard with the Tacoma-Pierce County Homeless Coalition considers the count an imperfect tool and says it can be dangerous when policy is based on the Point In Time Count.

“You can only count the people you can find within a certain amount of time within a certain day,” Howard said. “You might be able to provide them with resources when you go out to count, but we cannot make policy on a Point-In-Time Count that we know is imperfect.”

King County skipped the count this year for a second year, saying it will instead conduct “qualitative engagements” like surveys, interviews and focus groups. The federal government has excused entities from performing the count this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pierce County staff and homeless service providers have started using Coordinated Entry, a database of anyone who accesses homeless services across the county. Pierce County Human Services estimates there are about 3,300 people experiencing homelessness across the county, according to a November presentation to County Council.

The county contends that Point-In-Time Count can reach some who might not have entered the database yet, Catalinich said.

Unseen benefits

While the accuracy of the count is in question, volunteers said there are other benefits, like building relationships with people experiencing homelessness.

When Stumvoll was younger, he said, he was homeless and outreach helped him.

Sonja Nikiema, a Point-in-Time Count volunteer, leads the way through an encampment offering food and hygiene supplies to anyone who needs it while doing the annual census on people living unhoused in Tacoma on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
Sonja Nikiema, a Point-in-Time Count volunteer, leads the way through an encampment offering food and hygiene supplies to anyone who needs it while doing the annual census on people living unhoused in Tacoma on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

“Somebody offered me some help. And I made the decision to take it, and my life has been different ever since,” he said.

John Nicholas is a therapist and volunteered to help count those living unhoused on Thursday night. He feels that the Point-In-Time Count is an opportunity to build relationships between people living outside and resources and providers.

Volunteers hand out food and supplies to people living unhoused along East I Street in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
Volunteers hand out food and supplies to people living unhoused along East I Street in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

“We asked them a few questions and gave them a bag of stuff. If that helps them, the next time we come to see them, they’re more open to saying, ‘OK, you’re not you’re not ‘the man,’ you’re not against me, you’re here to actually do something to help.’ They’re going to be more willing to engage with that,” he said.

While volunteers use the encampments to reach out to those living unhoused, some have recently been cleared. Tacoma city officials will sweep the largest homeless encampment in Pierce County next week, under Interstate 705 off Puyallup Avenue and A street, the first spot volunteers visited on Thursday night.

Howard feels such sweeps erode trust built up by volunteers and human service workers.

“How will we find them and help provide resources?” Howard said.

Asked about the importance of building relationships during the count while also conducting encampment sweeps, County Executive Bruce Dammeier recalled that one person living under Interstate 705 asked volunteers for a bigger tent and a volunteer responded saying the goal is to get people off the streets, not to help them live more comfortably on the streets.

Dammeier pointed to the recent expansion of services, staff and funding for homeless services. The County Council approved its biggest allocation — $253 million — for homeless services in November. Those dollars will expand existing shelters and add more across Pierce County, while also increasing support services.

Dammeier was out on Thursday night for the count, saying that volunteering allows him to see the situation first hand.

“When I see people living on the streets of Pierce County, I know we can do better for them and our community,” he said.

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