Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator
Mecklenburg County Community Support Services
Each year, during the final Wednesday of January, Charlotte-Mecklenburg conducts an annual Point-in-Time Count. This is intended to capture the number of people experiencing “literal homelessness” in the community. “Literal homelessness” is defined as residing overnight in an emergency shelter, safe haven, transitional housing facility, or in an unsheltered location unfit for human habitation.
The Point-in-Time (PIT) Count (and the complementary Housing Inventory Count, or HIC) is a mandated activity of all Continuums of Care (CoCs) as a condition of receiving federal homelessness assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). HUD aggregates PIT & HIC data from over 395 CoCs as part of an annual report that is submitted to the U.S. Congress to inform funding decisions. For the past three years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has gone above and beyond the minimum HUD requirements, asking locally-generated survey questions to better inform decision-making here. The annual PIT Count, referred to here as “EverybodyCountsCLT,” has historically been supported by staff and hundreds of volunteers who go out, often in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours, to survey those individuals experiencing homelessness and to deliver donated winter weather supplies.
As with many things during the past year, communities have had to make adjustments to conduct this year’s Point-in-Time Count due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help communities in their planning efforts, HUD provided guidance to, and options for, communities to submit modifications or receive waivers. This week’s blog post provides an update on the 2021 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Point-in-Time Count and what it means for the community; and ways that individuals can meaningfully support the work, even during a health crisis.
ABOUT THE POINT-IN-TIME COUNT
There are three core components of the annual Point-in-Time Count activities: 1) sheltered homelessness census; 2) unsheltered homelessness census; and 3) Housing Inventory Count (HIC). The sheltered homelessness census includes the number and demographic characteristics of individuals residing in what HUD defines as an emergency shelter, safe haven or transitional housing facility. The unsheltered homelessness census refers to the number and demographic characteristics of individuals residing overnight in any location considered unfit for human habitation (such as sleeping outside, on a street or in an encampment). Whereas the PIT Count provides a census of the number of people experiencing homelessness on one night, the HIC provides a snapshot of the capacity of the system to both temporarily and permanently house people experiencing homelessness on that same night. The HIC includes the number of beds and/or units available in emergency shelter and transitional housing (considered temporary housing by HUD); and the number of beds and/or units available in rapid re-housing, other permanent housing, and permanent supportive housing projects (which are considered permanent housing by HUD). To read more about the results from the 2020 PIT Count, click here.
2021 HUD UPDATES
To help communities plan for the 2021 PIT Count in the midst of the pandemic, HUD provided guidance on how to conduct a safer census. In addition, HUD clarified which components of the PIT Count could be modified and/or exempted for this year. The unsheltered homelessness census typically involves engagement with individuals who are not already engaged in services, and therefore, typically requires significant in-person contact. As a result, HUD has allowed communities to modify how they conduct this portion of the PIT; and in some cases, forego it altogether. Modifications could include completing an observation-only census; or using existing data to generate an estimate. HUD is requiring that CoCs conduct the other two components (sheltered homelessness census and HIC) as per usual, with no modifications. This is because the relevant data for these activities should already be in HMIS as a part of regular data workflows completed by staff when an individual enters an emergency shelter or transitional housing facility. For the purposes of the HIC, providing and updating organizational capacity in HMIS involves communication and coordination among providers and HMIS staff; there is no in-person client contact required.
WHAT THE 2021 HUD UPDATES MEAN FOR EVERYBODYCOUNTSCLT
In response to COVID-19, and in alignment with HUD guidelines described above, there are two notable changes to the 2021 Point-in-Time Count in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The first modification is that there will be no local survey questions administered during the 2021 census. Including these questions during the PIT Count requires significant in-person interaction with more than 1,000 individuals. In recognition of the fact that the data from these questions are important to local decision-making, and the desire for continuity, staff are exploring opportunities to integrate these questions into regular workflows so that this data can be both captured and shared year-round. In addition, staff are considering new, COVID-19-related impact questions that could be helpful to community decision-makers.
The second major change is that HMIS data (and not in-person surveys) will serve as the primary source for the unsheltered census count. This shift will enable Charlotte-Mecklenburg to conduct a more accurate census without risking the health of volunteers and individuals experiencing homelessness. To accomplish this, staff who are already engaged with individuals and families experiencing homelessness will complete the count. This plan, which has been shared with the CoC and approved by HUD, also reflects the input of local street outreach and PATH providers. To read the full 2021 PIT Count methodology click here.
2021 EVERYBODYCOUNTSCLT INVOLVEMENT
Although the 2021 PIT Count will not utilize volunteers to conduct surveys, there are multiple ways individuals and groups can still meaningfully support the homeless service organizations who will shoulder most of the work. In response to COVID-19, these organizations have already had to pivot multiple times, adjusting operations and, in some cases, even physical structures to ensure that individuals have a safe place to spend the night. During the 2021 census, we have asked all 15 emergency shelter, safe haven and transitional housing providers to share information on how members of the community can best support them during this time. To learn more about how you can support any (or all) of these organizations, click here.
Individuals and groups can always support the PIT Count by raising awareness of both the challenges of, and solutions related to, housing instability and homelessness. Nationally, only 1 in 4 individuals in the United States who are eligible to receive federal housing assistance receive it. In addition, an estimated $70 billion is owed in back rent, utilities, and housing expenses across the United States as of January 2021. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the number of available and affordable rental units, as well as the amount of financial assistance available to gap the cost between what households can afford and the cost of housing, has been dwindling. While housing instability and homelessness were increasing pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem and worsened pre-existing disparities. The PIT Count provides an important opportunity for the community to elevate the issues facing individuals and families at risk of and/or experiencing homelessness; and, to advocate for additional funding to support interventions across the housing continuum, especially upstream. To learn more about how you can raise awareness, including toolkits for families and groups and fact sheets, click here.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg is not the only CoC to modify its unsheltered count census of the Point-in-Time Count in 2021. As an example, Austin, Texas plans to use HMIS and other data already in HMIS (rather than surveys conducted on or near the night of the PIT Count) to generate the unsheltered census count. Some communities are opting to conduct the unsheltered count census with in-person surveys on one night, but with staff only; examples include the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness and Denton County, Texas. Many communities on the West Coast (where the population of unsheltered homelessness is largest, and COVID community spread is highest) will not complete the unsheltered census count at all. These include multiple CoCs in California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington.
HUD has reiterated that requests for exceptions and/or modifications will not affect HUD funding to CoCs. In 2019, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg CoC received over $5.2 million in Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions Grant Program funding to support activities that help individuals and families access and sustain permanent, affordable housing.
But as more than a funding requirement, the Point-in-Time Count serves as an important reminder that behind every data point is a person who counts. In 2018, Charlotte-Mecklenburg branded our Point-in-Time Count as “EverybodyCountsCLT” to call attention to both the fact that we must ensure that everyone is counted, and to the reality that each individual matters. The changes to the 2021 PIT Count in response to COVID-19 embody these core tenets. By enumerating the problem of homelessness, the Point-in-Time Count activities are also a call to action. Please consider clicking here for more information on how to support “EverybodyCountsCLT” and, ultimately, the work to help everyone find a place to call home in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.