The Annual DC Point-in-Time Count
HUD requires a periodic count of persons experiencing homelessness
HUD requires Continuums of Care (CoCs) — regional or local groups that coordinate housing and services for homeless families and individuals — to conduct a periodic count of persons experiencing homelessness on a single night at the end of January. These Point-in-Time (PIT) counts include an annual count of individuals who are in emergency shelters or transitional housing as well as a biennial count of unsheltered individuals. The information collected during PIT counts is vital to distributing resources, identifying service needs, and tracking progress toward the goal of ending homelessness.
Heidi J. Joseph, Director of the Research Utilization Division for Policy Development and Research
Although HUD specifies that CoCs conducting PIT counts must follow certain requirements, the overall approach and methodology is determined at the local level. Since 2001, the Washington, DC PIT count has been run by the nonprofit Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Although communities must complete the unsheltered count only every other year, Washington, DC, and the Community Partnership, like many participating communities, complete the unsheltered census annually. On the night of the unsheltered count, local volunteers fan out across the city on foot and by car from roughly 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. The volunteers ask individuals key questions, including the length of time they have experienced homelessness; their race, age, chronic health conditions, veteran status, experiences of domestic violence, sexual orientation, and service needs; and the number of individuals in their household. The Community Partnership also provides translation support when the volunteer does not speak the same language as the unsheltered individual.
Point-in-Time counting on the ground in Washington, DC
I first volunteered for the District of Columbia PIT count in 2012. During my years as a volunteer, I’ve had an engaging conversation with a Vietnam veteran, investigated a laundromat to see if anyone was warming up inside, and climbed steep hills in Rock Creek Park to look for encampments near underpasses. One year I was part of a mobile unit that hit various hotspots around the city, and another year I walked down the National Mall and among the monuments, meeting up with my team halfway through the night at the Smithsonian Castle. Some nights were frigid, and other years it was practically T-shirt weather, even in the wee hours. Methods of data collection have advanced enormously over the years. In 2012, we were given a stack of paper forms and told to bring pens with ink that would not freeze in the cold; in 2022, our intake forms were on a slick mobile app powered by ArcGIS. Our concerns shifted from frozen ink to depleted cell phone batteries.
The 2022 DC PIT count took place on January 26, and my team members and I began the night by canvassing part of the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. This neighborhood is a largely residential area in Northwest DC with a short commercial corridor consisting of restaurants and small businesses. In the 1800s, Mount Pleasant was a quiet suburb, but the neighborhood is now squarely in the heart of the city. In the second half of the night, we canvassed part of the neighboring Columbia Heights neighborhood, including a busy commercial block with a Metro station. We walked through the neighborhoods with a bag of $20 cash cards, snacks, and hand warmers — the tokens of appreciation we provided to the people who spoke with us.
Counting during a pandemic
Starting with the 2021 PIT count, communities faced a new logistical challenge: conducting a survey during a global pandemic. The need for the PIT count data was even more acute in 2021, because HUD and local organizations needed to measure the impact of the pandemic on housing stability and the prevalence of homelessness. Suited up with personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, DC PIT count volunteers went out in force in January 2021 to collect this vital information. January 2022 marked the second DC PIT count conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as with most things, the second count went more smoothly than the first.
How PIT data are used
Every year, the information collected in the nationwide January PIT counts is compiled into HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), which HUD provides to Congress to estimate the prevalence of homelessness in the United States. Using the information collected in PIT counts, the report describes the demographics of those experiencing homelessness. The 2020 AHAR found that on a single night in 2020, 580,466 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness, an increase for the fourth consecutive year. Of these, nearly 172,000 people were in families with children, and 34,000 people were “unaccompanied youth” — those under the age of 25 experiencing homelessness on their own.
The 2021 AHAR just posted on HUD User. Because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented many communities from conducting the unsheltered count in January 2021, the report focuses on people experiencing sheltered homelessness (i.e., people who are staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens). The report finds that the number of sheltered individuals decreased from 354,386 in January 2020 to 326,126 in January 2021. Visit HUD User to see all of HUD’s AHAR reports, including the first report that examines the prevalence of homelessness in January 2005.
The PIT count data are vital to federal and local efforts to end homelessness. As Secretary Fudge put it, “To #EndHomelessness, data is crucial. We can't just talk the talk; we must walk the walk.” Because of the dedicated organizations throughout the country that conduct the annual PIT counts, HUD and its partner organizations can create data-driven policy and target services effectively.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2014. “Point-in-Time Count Methodology Guide.” Accessed 25 January 2022; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. 2021. “Notice for Housing Inventory Count (HIC) and Point-in-Time (PIT) Count Data Collection for Continuum of Care (CoC) Program and the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) Program,” CPD-21-12, 15 November. Accessed 13 January 2022. ×
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. 2021. “The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.” Accessed 12 January 2022. ×
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. 2020. “The 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.” Accessed 4 February 2022. ×