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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Volunteers wanted: Nonprofits are looking for help with an annual homeless census

Man walking with clip board in hand with tent and Dallas skyline in the background.
LM Otero
/
AP News
A small army of volunteers fans out across North Texas on an evening in late January every year to help assess the number of people experiencing homelessness.

The nonprofits organizing an annual headcount of people experiencing homelessness in North Texas are looking for nearly 2,000 volunteers. The data those volunteers gather will shape policy for the rest of the year.

On January 26, an army of volunteers will spread out across North Texas to find people experiencing homelessness. They’ll look for people living in tents under overpasses and in parks, people who sleep in their cars or in homeless shelters. And they’ll ask them to share a little bit of information about themselves.

This nationally coordinated annual census of homelessness, known as the Point in Time Count, provides a regular, nationwide snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness, the demographics of unhoused people, as well as their experience of homelessness.

“The Point in Time Count…is important for our system to understand the trends in homelessness,” said Housing Forward CEO Joli Angel Robinson.

The annual event also calls attention to the condition of the region’s neediest residents.

Volunteers needed

Typically, the event takes place all across Texas on the same night in order to avoid counting the same person twice. But the last two years have been far from typical.

In Tarrant and Parker Counties, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition streamlined the 2021 count, using only professional outreach workers. And last year, the coalition cancelled the count.

“[The Omicron variant of Covid-19] was really raging at the time and so we felt like for the safety of the volunteers and people experiencing homelessness, that was really the best thing for us to do,” King said.

In Dallas and Collin counties, Housing Forward also did not use volunteers for the 2021 count. Last year’s count was spread out over multiple days due to the Omicron surge. The plans were further disrupted when a cold snap hit the region, making travel hazardous for volunteers.

This year will be a return to normal, and both organizations are beating the bushes to get people back into the habit of volunteering.

Housing Forward is looking for about 1,200 volunteers to go out on the night of January 26 in Dallas and Collin Counties. For those who can’t go out that night, the group is also asking people to put together care packages for volunteers to hand out during the Point in Time Count.

TCHC needs about 500 volunteers, King said, who’ll fan out from a handful of centralized locations in Tarrant and Parker Counties and conduct a 12-question survey with every unhoused person they meet.

King said the organization doesn’t coordinate care packages for volunteers to hand out, but it does give volunteers a list of the most-requested items should they want to put something together on their own.

Data with a purpose

Data collected during the count gets reported up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s used to help connect the dots between local and national trends.

While last year’s count showed an overall decline in homelessness in Dallas and Collin Counties, it also showed that the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness had increased. That mirrored a national trend, Robinson said.

“When all regions all across the country are submitting their point in time count data, [the federal government saw] that the unhoused population is aging, they're getting older…individuals are remaining unhoused longer,” she said. “So what does that mean for us as a system? What do we need to tweak?”

In response, HUD made targeted funding available to increase the number of permanent supportive housing units for people who are unsheltered. Both the Housing Forward and the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition have applied for the funding.

These days, Lauren King said her organization relies less on the count than it used to as its data collection has grown more sophisticated.

“Before we got good at data, we really relied on the PIT Count to say here’s what’s happening, here’s what [homelessness] looks like,” King said. “Now we have a monthly dashboard that updates with real-time data.”

The annual count’s very annual-ness makes it less useful from a data perspective, she said. For example, when real-time data showed a sharp increase in families experiencing homelessness in Tarrant and Parker Counties during the summer and fall, King said service providers were able to more quickly shift strategy to meet their needs than if they’d waited for the annual point in time data.

That doesn’t mean King finds no value in the nationwide count. For one, it’s an apples-to-apples snapshot across the state and country.

It also helps engage the wider community. Driving past people sleeping under overpasses, it can be easy to make assumptions, King said. But actually going out and talking to those individuals is often eye-opening for volunteers.

“People are going to hear people’s stories,” King said. “I think it’s really impactful … for people really understanding why people are experiencing homelessness and what they’re going through.”

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.