Tag: Point In Time Count

Advocates, Service Providers, and US Census Workers Describe “Chaotic,” “Confusing” Process to Count the Unsheltered

Image by Enayet Raheem via Unsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

Tonight, temporary Census workers will fan out across King County, and communities all over the country, and attempt to count everyone who is living unsheltered by doing a “head count” of people observed sleeping in tents, vehicles, and on streets and in green belts statewide. Similar head counts, which are a way to include homeless people in the Census rather than an effort to count the number of people experiencing homelessness, began across the nation starting on Tuesday and will wrap up up tomorrow.

The counts are taking place in combination with separate counts of people who stay in shelters or access other homeless services, such as hot meals—the so-called sheltered homeless. This one-night “count,” which will take between four and six hours will be the only effort to enumerate the number of people living unsheltered in the United States—a number that effects not only political representation but the allocation of federal resources to address issues such as homelessness. Because President Trump shortened the Census timeline by a full month, to September 30, the agency will have no ability to recount or recalibrate if local counts go poorly or result in obvious undercounts of people living outdoors.

The ability of the Census Bureau to do an accurate count hinges on whether they follow best practices for counting people who generally don’t want to be found.

So what will tonight’s count look like? According to Los Angeles Regional Census Center spokesman Donald Bendz (whose division includes Seattle), the Census has trained its workers to interview people they encounter and has equipped them with advance intelligence, collected from local homeless service and outreach providers, about where encampments are located in every community. “We work with the city, the county, the state, and all of the partners who work in providing services to people experiencing homelessness and they provide us a list” of places where people are living unsheltered, Bendz said, “and then we have a list that we use from the 2010 census” that will be updated with new information from local service providers.

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In practice, homeless service providers and advocates say that outreach to their organizations has been patchy, confusing, and redundant. Nicole Macri, a state representative and deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that “ten or 15 different people [from the Census] reached out to us” asking similar questions. “I don’t know if it’s that COVID made it feel even more rushed and last-minute”—the Census collections, originally scheduled for April, were moved to September due to the pandemic—but “it just felt very confusing and chaotic.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the situation is similar in cities across the nation. “A lot of [service providers] expressed that it was confusing, that they had had difficulty reaching people at the Census to discuss issues and problems,” said NAEH president and CEO Nan Roman. “People have had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. The guidance was all over the place.”

Ground-level Census workers say they, too, are confused about how tonight’s “head count” will work. According to two local Census “enumerators,” the training for the overnight count has been scattershot and incomplete, with two weeks of in-person training replaced, due to COVID, by a single in-person orientation and fewer than two days of online exercises. As of late Monday afternoon, one census workers said he hadn’t gotten any details about where his team will be going, the methodology they’ll use for counting people if they don’t want to be interviewed or are asleep, or what to do if they can’t figure out how many people are sleeping in a location. 

“People have had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. The guidance was all over the place.”—Nan Roman, President and CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness

“The fact that I don’t even know where we’re doing [the count] tomorrow is a little unsettling,” one worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his temporary position, said. “We’ve gotten no instruction at all [on how to count people who are asleep]. I don’t know how we’re supposed to do that—are we supposed to throw the tent flaps back?”

Another temporary Census employee, who originally volunteered to participate in tonight’s count, which comes with a 10 percent pay bonus, backed out after he decided the process was “a shit show”; for one thing, he said, workers were expected to refer throughout the night, and make notations on, a 300-plus-page printout that they only received in electronic form.

The worker said he was also concerned about people who were newly homeless and might not show up a count that only focused on shelters, soup kitchens, and people living outdoors. “When you’re newly homeless, you don’t end up directly on the street—you couch surf or you jump in your car and travel,” he said. “The newly minted homeless certainly don’t have a location where you can count them.”

During tonight’s count, Census spokesman Bendz said, Census workers are supposed to try to talk to anyone who’s present and awake, but that “if they’re asleep, we won’t attempt to wake that person.” A Census training document obtained by PubliCola says that Census workers should try to talk to people in locations like encampments by going through a “group quarters contact person,” such as the “leader: of the encampment—a directive that suggests that ad hoc encampments are significantly more organized than they typically are in practice.

“The fact that DESC is a major homeless service provider, and it’s not clear to me that it’s well-known within the organization that this is happening, is a big red flag.” —Nicole Macri, deputy director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told a group of advocates and service providers last week that the coalition has been telling the Census Bureau for more than a year that a going “to places where people are camping by the thousands and ask[ing] them to complete a census form with a total stranger at night is a very poor process that isn’t going to count people effectively.”

Eisinger made her comments during Zoom meeting organized by the Coalition. Instead of telling member organizations to direct Census staff to specific outdoor locations, Eisinger said SKCCH is urging groups to proactively encourage clients to fill out their census forms whenever they come in contact with unsheltered people.

Unlike the annual Point In Time count of the region’s homeless population, the Census won’t be counting tents and cars from a distance and using a standard multiplier to estimate how many people are inside. Instead, Bendz said, they will be going right up to tents and vehicles and attempting to count people individually. “If everyone is asleep in a car, then we will count what we see in the car,” Bendz said. “If it’s a tent and the tent ‘windows,’ for lack of a better word, are open and we can see inside the tent, then we will count the people we see inside the tent.” 

The Census Bureau’s practices differ from the methods used during the Point In Time count in other ways as well. Every year, in the run-up to that count, volunteers spend weeks scouting sites during daylight hours to find encampment locations that might be overlooked at night. On the night of the count, more volunteers, mostly recruited from the ranks of community organizations and groups that work with the homeless population, spread out across a grid carefully designed to avoid double counting. Teams typically include at least one person with lived experience of homelessness who is familiar with the area and able to relate comfortably to unsheltered people the groups encounter.

“It just takes tremendous effort to organize an effective, comprehensive count of people who are unsheltered,” DESC’s Macri said. participated in one-night counts for more than a decade, back when the counts were done by the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Compared to the 2010 Census, there are a lot more people who are living unsheltered, and of course there’s a much greater proportion of people who are living homeless who are living unsheltered” in 2020, Macri adds.

Bendz said the Census Bureau has done months of outreach to service providers to figure out the best way to count people living unsheltered, but Macri—whose organization provides outreach and is one of the largest shelter providers in the Seattle area—told me that she was “unaware” of tomorrow’s count until I asked her about it. DESC director Daniel Malone told me that he, too, was unaware of any communications with the Census Bureau about encampment locations.

“The fact that DESC is a major homeless service provider, and it’s not clear to me that it’s well-known within the organization that this is happening, is a big red flag,” Macri said. Roman, from the NAEH, said that she heard from one large city that Census officials told the county that they were working closely with the Continuum of Care—the regional planning body that coordinates homeless services for a county or other jurisdiction—”but none of the [CoC] board and none of the staff had ever talked to them.” Continue reading “Advocates, Service Providers, and US Census Workers Describe “Chaotic,” “Confusing” Process to Count the Unsheltered”

Annual Homeless Count: Redefining “Shelter,” Struggling to Count the Chronically Homeless

The latest annual report on King County’s homeless population from All Home King County found an overall decrease in the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, from 4,488 last year to 3,558 in 2019—a reduction Mayor Jenny Durkan touted in a letter announcing the expansion of the Navigation Team as “the first decrease since 2012″ and evidence that ” our shared work to address our crisis of affordability and homelessness is having an impact.” Over the same time period, the number of people experiencing homelessness who were in some form of shelter or transitional housing increased from 4,000 to 4,239.

This year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category.

However, those numbers conceal a few important details: First, that the number of unsheltered people living in tent encampments actually went up in this year’s count, from 1,034 to 1,162. Second, this year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments that were previously categorized as encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category. (A sixth village, at Northlake, was excluded “until it is up to ADA code,” according to the board minutes.) Including the tiny houses—communities where people live in wooden structures the size of a small garden shed—in the “encampment” count would have raised that number to 1,342. The board vote on the redefinition was split 10-4.

In a letter to the All Home board in March, Seattle Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson requested that the tiny houses be moved to the “shelter” category, arguing that they meet “the most relevant” criteria set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for “shelter”—namely, that the structures are ADA accessible, that there is security on site, that the site has hygiene facilities, that the structures are ventilated, and that they include sanitary food preparation areas. In the letter, Johnson also notes that the five tiny house villages have case management and offer extended hours or 24/7 access.

“If basic shelters, which only allow people to come in overnight and sleep on floor with no services and amenities are classified as shelter, then permitted villages that meet the HUD requirements of shelter, and have amenities, services and outcomes that far exceed that of basic shelter, should also be classified as such,” Johnson wrote.

Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which was responsible for what was then called the One-Night Count until All Home took over in 2017, called the reclassification of tiny house villages as shelter “Orwellian” and out of keeping with decades of established practice.

HUD’s minimum criteria for emergency shelter (Appendix A) also include additional requirements, such as smoke detectors in each unit, structural standards, compliance with fair housing rules, heating and cooling, and other requirements that Johnson did not mention in his letter.

The report also found a reduction in the number of veterans, young people, and chronically homeless people living outdoors. Of those three categories, the decrease in veteran and youth homelessness is a clear result of new investments in shelter and housing targeted at those specific populations. The apparent decline in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, however, could be a result of the methodology used to come up with that number, which is an extrapolation based on in-person interviews with chronically homeless individuals—defined as individuals who have experienced homelessness for a year or more or on four separate periods during a three-year span, and who also have a disabling condition that prevents them from working or going to school.

Extrapolating these numbers to Seattle (based on the percentage of the population , this finding would suggest that the number of chronically homeless unsheltered people—increased from just over 1,200 in 2017 to nearly 1,800 in 2018, then decreased to just over 600 people between 2018 and 2019. Since chronically homeless people are, by definition, people who are homeless year after year, and since there has not been any massive investment in new permanent supportive housing for hundreds of chronically homeless people in Seattle, the obvious conclusion is that these numbers are not an accurate guide to the actual number of unsheltered chronically homeless people in Seattle from year to year. A similar fluctuation can be seen in the number of unsheltered people with mental illness and substance use disorders—a pattern that probably reflects the challenges with the methodology All Home’s researchers use, rather than any wild fluctuation in the number of people living on the streets with mental illness and addiction from year to year.

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, says the surveys that serve as the basis for the counts of unsheltered people in various sub-populations may be to blame. “They survey people, then extrapolate out to the total number of people who are unsheltered, so if one year if you happen to interview a bunch of people who meet the criteria for chronic homelessness, and the next year you interview a bunch of people who don’t, then you’re going to end up multiplying a factor and applying it to the total number of unsheltered people,” Malone says. “I think you naturally have to be much less confident in that kind of demographic extrapolation.”

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Kira Zylstra, All Home’s acting director, acknowledges that “there is fluctuation with all of these numbers” based on survey data, “particularly with more refined slices of the data. … For chronically homeless and people with disabilities and other characteristics and needs, it’s dependent on a representative survey, which has even further limitations, as well as reported data” obtained through other sources.

To put a finer point on it, information obtained on sheltered people through the county’s Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) is generally pretty good, because it’s based on tracking individual people from year to year—a fact that’s reflected in the number of chronically homeless people in shelter, which has fluctuated only slightly between 2017 and now.

Information on chronically homeless people living on the streets is much less reliable for a number of reasons , including the fact that interview subjects are located by formerly homeless people themselves, who may gravitate to people and places they already know; the fact that people with major disabilities may face extra challenges that make them less likely to participate in lengthy, in-person interviews with researcher; and the fact that the survey results are extrapolated to apply to much larger populations, despite the fact that in the case of unsheltered people in particular, the survey itself may be unrepresentative.

This year,  the data on all chronically homeless individuals in King County is extrapolated using surveys with about 180 people, some of whom did not respond to all questions. Anything unrepresentative about this population will be multiplied and magnified when the researchers extrapolate from that small sample to the entire homeless population in King County and Seattle. For example, the researchers reached conclusions about the chronically homeless population by figuring out what percentage of survey respondents fit into certain categories—sheltered vs. unsheltered, individual vs. families, etc.—and multiplying that percentage by the total number of people in the general street count in those categories.

Malone, whose organization works primarily with chronically homeless people, says he hopes the extrapolated surveys of unsheltered people won’t be used to dictate policy or funding decisions or to fuel self-congratulatory press releases. He maintains that the best use of the count is as a general comparison of homelessness from year to year—by that standard, he says, the real story is that the unsheltered homeless population has declined as the number of shelter beds in Seattle has increased.