In 2016, a homeless encampment near downtown became known as Tent City.

Public Health

The Annual Homeless Count Is On, But You Can’t Participate

COVID-19 restrictions mean that the count will be left to the professionals and happen over two weeks in Dallas and Collin counties.

The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance usually schedules the annual point-in-time homeless count for a cold night in January, when many of those experiencing homelessness are in shelters. But for those residents who aren’t housed, hundreds of volunteers divide Dallas and Collin counties into sections, driving and walking through neighborhoods to count and survey unsheltered individuals. 

These point-in-time counts are federally mandated for any local government receiving U.S. Housing and Urban Development grants to combat homelessness. Questionnaires help cities get a census, but also better understand the situations and needs of those who are living on the streets. They ask whether the individual is a member of a family unit or by themselves. These identify the number of chronically homeless as well as houseless individuals with disabilities. The questionnaires also can help local governments find these people again later.

Cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco have canceled or postponed their point-in-time counts, even as the number of those experiencing homelessness has swelled due to COVID-19. In Dallas, according to the MDHA, the monthly increase in homelessness was 165 people, more than the same increase last year. Because the city has been able to house more people due to increased funding from the CARES act, the increased number of homeless coming into the system may not result in a net gain of those experiencing homelessness. The count will help clear that up.

Between 2019 and 2020, the total number of those experiencing homelessness declined for the first time in three years, though the number of unsheltered homeless increased. In 2020, the point-in-time count identified 4,471 people experiencing homelessness, a decrease of 1.4 percent from the year before. Dallas and Collin counties saw increases of 9 percent each of the previous two years. Unsheltered individuals, which are the people who were found outside of shelters, increased from 1,153 in 2019 to 1,211 in 2020, a jump of just over 10 percent.

Counting involves gathering with strangers and packing into cars. So MDHA officials changed how the count will occur. First, the date has been moved. Cities waited so long for guidance from the federal government about how the count should proceed that the organization didn’t have time to plan it in January. The count will begin February 18. Instead of the normal 1,700 volunteers, the count will be done by street outreach professionals. It will take two weeks to complete.

The smaller group of professionals won’t cover the entire city but will focus on areas where homeless camps are known to be, based on past counts and other outreach efforts. Though the count will take over two weeks, they will be asking where the resident was sleeping on February 18 to get a point-in-time count. They will also be asking a truncated set of questions to decrease the amount of time spent together.

If volunteers want to take part, they can attend the virtual launch of the count in February, which will include information about homelessness and speeches from Rev. Todd Atkins of the Salem Institutional Baptist Church; Ashley Brundage, the chair of Dallas and Collin counties’ Continuum of Care Board; and Peter Brodsky, the chair of the MDHA board. There will also be a short video from the field. Volunteers and groups can also donate care packages that will be distributed as the counters make their way through the city. But not having volunteers take part is a significant loss, as the count is also an introduction to the world of homelessness for volunteers. It often leads to future donations of time and money to the cause. 

The count is usually necessary if a city wants to receive funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, though COVID might offer a reprieve for those cities that cancel due to COVID-19. The surveys reveal numbers and location, but also find out if the person is a veteran, a victim of abuse or discrimination, part of a family, if they are addicted to alcohol or drugs, and other information that can guide future services and funding. Dallas leaders have made it a goal to end veteran homelessness in Dallas, as Houston has done over the past few years.

MDHA realizes that the numbers will not be comparable to the comprehensive counts of past and future years. Still, they also know this is the best they can do considering the situation. City services and nonprofits also keep track of those experiencing homelessness in town; the organization is confident the data will be useful for future outreach and aid.

“We do not expect the numbers we are going to get locally to be able to be compared with previous or futures years,” says David Gruber, a spokesman for MDHA. “What they’re interested in is answering the question: Is COVID-19 causing an increase in homelessness, a decrease in homelessness, or is it staying the same?”

Though there has been an increase in homelessness in Dallas since the pandemic began last March, it isn’t all bad news. Federal funding has boosted housing for more of those experiencing homelessness locally. The funding has improved the city’s rapid rehousing program, and around 700 people are set to be rehoused over the next year.

“This is something I predicted in March,” Gruber says. “We’re going to have a lot more need, but we are going to have far more resources, and it has yet to be seen how that all pans out.”

To learn more about the count, check here.

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