What’s it like to conduct the point-in-time homeless count? A look at the process — and why it’s an imperfect tool

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Members of the point-in-time count team that the Journal-World accompanied enter a campsite in the wooded area near the intersection of Eighth and Delaware streets in East Lawrence on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

It’s a chilly, damp morning, and just over half a dozen advocates are combing the wooded areas in northeastern Lawrence, looking for people who are living outside.

Mostly on foot, they’ve been searching since before sunrise — near the Kansas River and the railroad tracks, behind the Amtrak station, then farther east — as part of the annual point-in-time homeless count. Some patches of snow are on the ground, but there are also bottles, tarps and other pieces of debris there that show people have been here.

And sometimes there’s even clearer evidence, like the tents and other personal items just behind Hobbs Park and a short distance away down 11th Street.

The advocates call out to announce their presence. But nobody seems to be around.

Was someone living there at all? It’s not clear. The campsites might have been abandoned, or the team might have simply arrived when the occupants were away. But there’s always another possibility when you’re doing the annual count — that someone was there, but they didn’t want to be counted.

That’s typical of the challenges involved in the point-in-time count, according to Mathew Faulk, director of housing for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. It’s hard to know where people will be. And even if you search every nook and cranny to find them, they can still refuse to participate in the survey — which involves answering a list of questions that some might find too personal or private, but that are necessary to get a clearer picture of homelessness in the community.

“How do you navigate those two not necessarily aligned interests?” Faulk said. “I need to develop trust with this individual. They need to be able to open up to me and tell me some really very personal things, at the same time knowing that they’re also telling that to someone who’s going to report on it and provide that data somewhere.”

The Journal-World got to see these problems firsthand last week as it accompanied one of the teams doing the annual count, trekking across a section of northeast Lawrence. As the Journal-World has reported, the point-in-time count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it took place throughout the day Thursday in Douglas County and around the state.

The count is intended to give a picture of how many sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals are in a community on a single night in January. Last year, that number was 351. This year’s tally won’t be known for months, and looking at the process firsthand makes it clear that the number won’t — and can’t — paint the whole picture of precisely how many people make up the local unhoused population. But it’s nonetheless a vital, if imperfect, tool for communities to assess their needs — and to secure funding from HUD.

• • •

The Lawrence Amtrak station is a hub of activity shortly after 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, but not because anyone’s there to catch a train. Rather, the people there are being assigned to teams that, over the next eight hours or so, will spread out across the city and Douglas County to survey the area’s unsheltered homeless population.

In the group that the Journal-World accompanies, there are seven other people: two Lawrence Community Shelter workers, two staff members with Artists Helping the Homeless, a City of Lawrence staff member, an officer with the Lawrence Police Department and an intern with the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition. Each of the other five teams helping to conduct the count is a similar size.

The teams have been given more than a dozen questions to ask the people they encounter, and now they get their general routes for the day — plotted in advance using mapping data from the county’s Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. This group’s route is in northeast Lawrence, and it includes one of the city’s best-known camps, behind the Amtrak station near Seventh and New Jersey streets.

Just like a map of train routes, the maps include “stops” — in this case, known locations where people have been living outside, like the Amtrak camp. They also include “reported locations” — sites where camps have been reported through an online form that the city launched in October. The team has 11 stops and about 16 reported locations to check out.

This level of organization hasn’t been typical of past counts.

Only one member of the group the Journal-World accompanied had participated in point-in-time counts before — on two occasions — and they said those counts didn’t break up the search areas for volunteer teams with this level of specificity. Misty Bosch-Hastings, the city’s homeless programs coordinator, told the Journal-World ahead of the count that was something organizers wanted to be especially deliberate about this time around.

Then, the canvass starts. The small group drives to the upper-deck parking lot near Lawrence City Hall and sets out from underneath the intersection of Sixth and Massachusetts streets, searching for tents under the bridges to and from North Lawrence and following the train tracks. By about 7 a.m., they’ve worked their way back to the area behind the Amtrak station.

They haven’t found anyone to take the survey yet. But that’s about to change.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Members of the point-in-time count team that the Journal-World accompanied prepare to survey a resident of the camp near Lawrence’s Amtrak station during the early morning on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

• • •

It’s not evident if you’re only looking at the final tally, but the survey is a crucial element of the point-in-time count — one that determines whether a person is counted at all.

The work that took place Thursday isn’t intended to generate only an overall tally of how many people are unhoused in Lawrence and Douglas County, and that’s because there are many factors that make it impossible to guarantee that every person is accounted for. In fact, leaders working in homelessness prevention often assert that the count likely underestimates the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in any given community.

Part of the reason is that people could simply choose not to participate in the survey.

Some of the questions it asks are basic demographic questions: participants’ age range, gender, race and ethnicity, monthly income and employment, disability and veteran status. Others have to do with where they were staying the night before the count, and with their history of homelessness. Here are the questions, beyond the demographic basics, that the survey asks.

• How long have you been in this county?

• Where did you sleep on the night of Jan. 24?

• Did another volunteer or survey worker already ask you these same questions about where you slept last night?

• Including yourself, how many adults and children are in your household, who were sleeping in the same location with you on the night of Jan. 24?

• Household type, such as single person, two-person with no children and more.

• The reasons why an individual is experiencing homelessness, including a list of a dozen options such as human trafficking, inability to pay rent, substance use, eviction and job loss.

• Is this the first time you have been homeless?

• Have you been in this episode of homelessness for more than a year?

• How many episodes of homelessness have you had the past three years?

• How many months have you been homeless in the past three years?

• Whether an individual has long-term issues, such as a physical disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use or a traumatic brain injury, that keep them from living in stable housing.

Two of those questions — the ones asking how long an individual has been in the county and what they think caused their homelessness — are only part of the survey in Douglas County this year. Organizers on Thursday told the Journal-World they’ll provide some unique data about how frequently neighboring communities might be transporting unhoused people to Lawrence. One survey respondent, for example, said they’d been in the county for about 10 years — and had been unhoused for about 15 years.

At this site behind the Amtrak station, the group administers about half of the surveys it will conduct this morning. One resident tells the group to come back later, when more people are awake. (Part of the group did visit the camp again, about four hours later; the only person there was someone who’d been counted by another group and was walking back to the campsite.)

For this year’s count, people had an additional incentive to take part. As the Journal-World reported, Johnny’s Tavern owner Rick Renfro, part of the group of business owners who’ve sued the city in an effort to close a city-sanctioned homeless camp located behind his business in North Lawrence and the unsanctioned camp located behind the Amtrak station, donated $3,000 toward offering $10 to everyone who participates in the count voluntarily. They’d also get a new backpack for participating.

Even so, the group still finds a few people who aren’t willing to participate.

• • •

From the Amtrak camp, the group makes its way east, through more of the wooded area behind the intersection of Eighth and Delaware streets. It’s a short walk from that area back to the Amtrak station, where the team takes two cars and drives over to Hobbs Park, near the intersection of 11th and Delaware.

That’s where they find the two maybe-abandoned, maybe-not campsites. It’s also the last time they encounter any sites that might have been home to someone sleeping outdoors.

But it’s not the end of the route. They keep going, down the Burroughs Creek Trail, onto 15th Street, then up the street past the East Lawrence Recreation Center and out to Oak Hill Cemetery. That’s because one city staffer had mentioned there might be a site in the wooded area behind the natural burial plots tucked away on the north side of the cemetery. The team combs the wooded area near Oak Hill without finding anything, and then they pass through Brook Creek Park, emerge near Just Food and make their way back to the parked cars at Hobbs Park.

They’ve walked about 6.5 miles between 6 and 11 a.m., and they’ve collected about 10 surveys.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The point-in-time count team that the Journal-World accompanied makes its way through a wooded area in East Lawrence in search of people sleeping outdoors.

• • •

By lunchtime, all of the volunteer teams have completed their routes, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. Some of them set out to revisit high-traffic locations an additional time; others go to homeless service providers like the Drop In and Rest Center — commonly known as DARE — to survey clients there. Later on in the evening, guests at the Lawrence Community Shelter would also be asked if they’d been surveyed earlier in the day.

The Journal-World, meanwhile, is invited to join Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center staff at the Lawrence Public Library lobby to catch up with any individuals who may have missed participating in the survey, either out in the field or at various social service agencies.

Faulk, Bert Nash’s housing director, is there. He’s no stranger to the ins and outs of the point-in-time count; this year’s is the 18th he’s assisted with. He says this year’s count has been organized differently, with more people involved and with the community formally divided into search areas for each team to canvass.

“That’s the main benefit, is they were able to get a lot more people involved, for sure, whereas before it was really only the service providers who work in the field who were conducting the count,” Faulk says. “They pulled in police, they pulled in a lot more volunteers, they pulled in more people from city departments, which provides a lot more staff to conduct the survey.”

At the same time, having institutional knowledge from someone like Faulk is essential in making sure the count includes as many people as possible. He says organizers didn’t originally have anyone stationed at the library, but Bert Nash staff said it was critical to canvass there: It’s a high-traffic location that many unhoused people will visit throughout the day.

It’s important to keep in mind that the count only provides a picture of one night in the community, Faulk says, especially when it comes to the overall number that organizers will share later in the year. And he says there are many situations where someone might be experiencing homelessness but wouldn’t be accurately reflected in the count, even if they wanted to participate. For example, a participant who reports sleeping at a friend’s house the night before but who otherwise sleeps outdoors wouldn’t get counted under HUD’s definition of “unsheltered homeless.”

“But that is a huge factor in the accuracy of the count and the number that it generates, and it’s important for people to understand that there is a margin for error,” Faulk says. “And when we think about homelessness within our community, that is something that is taking place over time. It’s not something that takes place on one night, so in order to get a truly accurate number we need to be talking about periods of time rather than a single night.”

That’s not to mention the sheer logistical challenge of finding people in the first place, and the fact that they can refuse to take part.

There’s a somewhat precarious balance between the system and social service providers’ relationships with unhoused people, Faulk says: It’s hard to provide adequate help without knowing enough about their situation. He says a lot of what Bert Nash does is dependent on collecting and providing information, and that means there has to be a level of trust so the person is comfortable enough to open up. The count wants to respect people’s autonomy and acknowledge that the process can be intrusive, he says, and that can conflict with the other interest of getting an accurate number.

• • •

If you just look at this year’s count in a vacuum, Howard Callihan, a case manager with Bert Nash’s Homeless Outreach Team, says on Thursday afternoon that he thinks it’s gone decently so far. Callihan says another difference compared to years past is that in the past few years, the city and county have built up their administrative arms and have contributed to a more coordinated effort between agencies.

He says that makes it more likely to get a “pretty comprehensive count,” but that goal might have been easier if the count had been conducted just a couple of days earlier.

Less than 24 hours before the count began, the City of Lawrence closed its additional emergency shelters that had been open throughout January in response to extreme winter weather. That was rather poor timing, Callihan says, because it meant volunteers couldn’t catch the people staying at those shelters.

Callihan says it wasn’t all that surprising to find abandoned campsites Thursday, considering the severe conditions of the past two weeks — especially since community advocates and city staff had been actively working to get people into safe shelter. He says advocates had been conducting routine patrols, keeping their own lists of who was staying outside and making regular trips to visit them, either to encourage them to get indoors or to make sure they had enough propane on hand to get through the freezing temperatures.

“They honestly showed a really amazing amount of organization and coordination during that emergency situation,” Callihan says. “So much of what sticks in people’s heads are the somewhat combative conversations at City Commission meetings and maybe conflicts with one or two individuals, but I don’t think that group can get enough praise for what they pulled off during those two weeks.”

With the count now complete, the wait is on to find out exactly how much data volunteers collected — and how helpful it will turn out to be.

Faulk says that the two previous counts resulted in the highest tally of unsheltered homeless individuals the county had ever had, and that, logically, the level of organization and number of people involved in this year’s count would result in a better one.

But that doesn’t mean the problems with the count will go away anytime soon. Faulk says that in theory, it’s a tool that policymakers can use to make decisions about funding. But in practice, it’s not necessarily the case that they’ll decide to provide more money.

“If the population or the community wants a more robust investment in a solution or doing something about it, the general community’s going to have to get a lot more vocal about telling the city, the county and the state and their federal representatives — everybody — that we want them spending a lot more money on this issue,” Faulk says.

“… It’s not enough for us to just go out and do this count — we also need people to reach out to their representatives, reach out to their county and city administrators, and tell them: ‘We want larger investment in this issue.'”


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