Even in 2020, it takes as low-tech a method as walking around cities in the middle of a winter night, flashlight in hand, to count the unsheltered homeless.

During one week at the end of January, jurisdictions across the country — Philadelphia included — dispatch thousands of volunteers to walk their streets. They’re looking for people classified as “literally homeless,” which includes people who sleep outside because they have nowhere else to go.

Along with information about the number of people staying in shelters and transitional housing, the data collected from that effort, called the “Point-in-Time count,” helps shape homeless services across the country.

In fact, for Philly — as well as other cities like Houston and D.C. — the PIT count is arguably the very center of homeless services. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires cities to conduct the count at least once every two years, distributes federal grant money based on their findings. Advocacy organizations spend months recruiting volunteers to collect data. HUD secretaries and mayors, including Mayor Jim Kenney, have shown up for the count. More significantly, local leaders often use the resulting data as a touchstone to make sweeping claims about yearly declines in homelessness.

That’s exactly what Philly leaders have done this year. One recent press release from the city’s homeless services office declares: “Philly’s homeless services success story continues as PIT Count begins.”

But despite years of practice counting, and a growing sophistication in how cities understand homelessness, the data provided by the PIT are misleading. What hangs in the balance is the health and survival of all the people who depend on the services that are shaped by these numbers.

“This number is the most obvious and basic number of unsheltered people” Sister Mary Scullion, the co-founder and executive director of Philadelphia’s Project HOME, says. “I’ve never heard anyone argue, ‘this is the final word on homelessness.’”

Far from being precise, the count missis critical unsheltered groups, including people who are couch-surfing, staying temporarily at motels, or are incarcerated.

Jillian Marks, left, asks Camron Welch, 43 questions related to being homeless in North Sacramento near Township 9 Park and the American River during the Point in Time Count homeless census on Wednesday night, January 30, 2019.
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Jillian Marks, left, asks Camron Welch, 43 questions related to being homeless in North Sacramento near Township 9 Park and the American River during the Point in Time Count homeless census on Wednesday night, January 30, 2019.

Consider the largest of these populations: school-aged children. Nationally, there were nearly 1.4 million homeless children counted at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, Education Department data show, a 27 percent increase from the 2010-2011 school year. Yet national PIT data from 2017 counted only 4,800 homeless people under 18 living alone, and 110,000 homeless youth living with families — 1.28 million fewer children than the Education Department documented.

That trend bears out acutely in Philadelphia. At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, there were over 7,100 homeless youth in the city, according to Pennsylvania state education data. Yet you wouldn’t know that from looking at Philadelphia’s PIT numbers, which counted just roughly 1,500 homeless youth in January of 2018 — a staggering gulf.

Some researchers estimate that as many as 63 percent of homeless public school students in Pennsylvania are “doubled up,” or staying with friends, which helps explain why they’re so hard to identify. While HUD’s definition of homelessness includes those who are temporarily doubled up, PIT misses all those people.

When cities and states routinely under-count the homeless, they fail to meet true community need.

Beyond that, PIT allows a city like Philly to tout having the smallest homelessness population of the country’s 10 largest cities, while glossing over the many housing-insecure people in a city where more than one-quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

There’s certainly value in having the rough snapshot the PIT provides of how many unsheltered people live in a city, as well as bringing awareness to the myriad forms homelessness can take. But the count has outgrown its usefulness as the most public measure for counting the homeless, and for driving the federal funding so crucial to ensuring that people get the services and support they need.

Steve Berg, the Vice President for Programs and Policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, goes a step further and says the PIT count can be deceptive. “If you know how many people are homeless tonight, that leads to people thinking, ‘well, we can solve homelessness in our community by housing that many people, and then we won’t have any homeless people,’” he says. “Which, of course, doesn’t take into account [that] tomorrow, a bunch more people are going to become homeless. And the day after that, a bunch of people are going to become homeless.”

Berg acknowledges that cities would “go crazy” at the suggestion that they should conduct PIT counts more frequently given the resources they require, but concedes that would be one way to get better data. Like NAEH, the country’s most prominent national homelessness organizations have called out the count’s shortcomings for years. It’s past time for HUD to make improvements — and for cities to step up too.

To start, jurisdictions should supplement their count of the unsheltered homeless with data from other local institutions, like school districts, jails, and hospitals, all of which are critical partners in any robust housing services system. (Some cities, like Houston, have taken it upon themselves to conduct an “expanded” count that includes some of this data.) Pulling this data quarterly would also make the PIT count more reliable, and give cities a better sense of what they’re grappling with.

But to see more meaningful reform, HUD should standardize its methodology, and coordinate the PIT count in partnership with local authorities, rather than relying on cities — which have different mechanisms for conducting the count — to self-report.

When cities and states routinely under-count the homeless, they fail to meet true community need. And as the number of homeless children and youth in the U.S. hits a record high, there’s no better time to rethink how we make sure all of our neighbors, at varying stages of housing instability, are safe.

Morgan Baskin is a D.C.-based reporter. She writes about housing, homelessness, and social services. @mhbaskin