How Many Homeless People Live Here? We Can Only Count Who We Find

on May 15, 2014 News with 0 comments
Volunteers look for homeless camps along the Potomac. Photo: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

One of the most frequently asked questions about homelessness: Just how many people are homeless in Arlington? (and in DC and in the region and in the country?)

According to The Washington Post this week, DC homelessness is up 13% and Arlington County is down 39%. Despite the headline and the exactitude of those numbers, that’s the one question we’re never able to answer accurately. People cycle in and out of homelessness all the time. Some people may literally only experience homelessness for a couple of hours, while for some it may be days, weeks, or decades. Someone I meet today may have been homeless yesterday or become homeless tomorrow because of a sudden change in circumstance or an emergency.

We do want to try to know how many of our neighbors are experiencing homelessness. Once a year, jurisdictions across the country do a one-day Point In Time Count of homeless persons to try to gauge their approximate homeless population. The Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) mandates it at least every two years for jurisdictions that receive homelessness funding and require that it be during the last 10 days of January. They also publish guidelines for communities to try to standardize methods as much as possible so counts may be compared.

But the Point In Time Count is literally only the number of people that we are able to count on that one day – a snapshot. On any other day, it may be different. Any change reported must be fairly reported as a change in the count from the year before. While the PIT count is a useful tool, it can also be misinterpreted to mean the absolute exact number of homeless people. The report published by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government (MWCOG) includes in the 3rd paragraph:

“It is important to note that the “Point-in-Time ‘snapshot’ provides one perspective on the state of homelessness in the metropolitan Washington region on only one day and may be influenced by numerous variables, such as weather and current bed availability by jurisdiction.”


The Arlington County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness aims for the most accurate Point In Time count possible. Not only are individuals and families in shelters and transitional housing counted, volunteers and staff also canvass the entire county looking for unsheltered people who may not be seeking traditional services. We’ve got a great staff, great partners in the Arlington County Department of Human Services, and fantastic volunteers, but there’s a lot of ground to cover.

And this year it was cold! The high for January 29th was 26 degrees with the low dropping to 13 degrees overnight – which was when the count was conducted. One volunteer wrote a blog post in which she shared how long it took her to get dressed to go out over night:

“it took me 30 minutes to put on all my layers for the evening. I bundled up with 3 pairs of socks, 2 pants, 4 shirts, 3 scarves, 2 hats and my long winter coat.”


Other volunteers emailed us to share their experiences:

“We were in the middle of a brutally cold week – temperatures had been hovering around 10 to 15 degrees for the past several days. My shift was 1:30-6:30AM and I arrived at the Department of Human Services building early, wearing multiple layers. Members of the previous shift were pouring into the conference room, excited, cold and full of stories. The camaraderie was apparent – they had interviewed several people and had taken one man to the hospital for weather-related symptoms. A staff member remarked that it had been so cold one year that the pen froze. It was hard to fathom that there were people living outside in these elements every day.”


The MWCOG report includes on page 6: “the severely cold temperatures…may have depressed the unsheltered count as individuals “doubled up” or combined resources for the night to escape the weather.” In other words, people may have rented motel rooms or couch-surfed to be safe during the cold snap. A WTOP reporter joined one group of PIT Count volunteers and described the snowy conditions and abandoned tents they found.

Arlington County is making impressive strides toward ending homelessness. There are improved key outcomes for families exiting shelter: almost 85% move to permanent housing with 63% of the adults in those families employed. Two local transitional housing programs shifted to Rapid Re-housing and participated in a statewide re-housing challenge. The 100 Homes Campaign has placed 87 formerly chronically homeless adults in housing and may make the 100-person goal by the end of the summer. The Homeless Services Center will provide even more services and hope for people experiencing homelessness in Arlington. So there has been a dramatic change in numbers of people experiencing homelessness and a dramatic change in the way that all county partners work to end homelessness, but the work is not yet done.


Click here for more photos from The Washington Post of the 2014 PIT Count.

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