Picture shows an Encampment near Washington Circle Park, showing three tents and personal belongings.

Volunteers dispersed throughout the District the night of Jan. 27 to count every individual they could find on the street, in hopes of determining the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city. Every year, nonprofit organizations, homeless service agencies, and volunteers work together into the early hours of the morning to participate in the Point-in-Time count.

The PIT count, which has been an annual requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 2001, heavily influences how the city will allocate their resources to address homelessness. The count happens on the same day in every jurisdiction nationwide in order to avoid duplicate data. As the count of unsheltered people takes place, everyone staying in shelters is simultaneously counted and, when amenable, interviewed.

Throughout the count, volunteers conduct surveys to gain knowledge on population demographics, asking questions on topics such as age, race, length of time homeless, history of institutionalization, gender identity, and sexual orientation. A report analyzing the responses for D.C. and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties that make up the metro region is typically published by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in May. 

However, the 2021 count included a host of new challenges. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, normal procedure had to be adjusted to account for social distancing and ensure the safety of all involved. While the count would normally begin with a celebratory kick-off event to thank and energize the hundreds of volunteers involved, this year’s effort involved no large gatherings and a significant reduction in the number of volunteers. Prior to meeting in person, all volunteers had to sign a general waiver and complete a COVID screening to ensure that no one had been in high risk situations or had any known COVID exposure. “Basically the strategy was dispersing out and limiting opportunities for people to congregate,” said Patrick Costanzo, a senior outreach specialist for Pathways to Housing D.C. who led one of the volunteer teams.  

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) provided personal protective equipment both for the volunteers and to distribute to individuals on the streets. The only volunteers that were able to participate in the count were homeless outreach workers or individuals who had participated in the count in the past, in order to circumvent the difficulties of virtual training. Efforts were also made to pair volunteers from the same household or individuals that were already working closely together. 

In addition to the logistical complications, COVID-19 created new difficulties for the volunteers when conducting their surveys. “The PIT count is ideally pretty conversational, and you ask some pretty personal questions when you are trying to gather demographic information” said Leta Davis, outreach manager for Pathways to Housing D.C. “It is challenging to do that while maintaining social distance. You kind of lose a little bit of that connection, but we always try to explain to clients why we are trying to maintain a distance: to protect them.”

The information retrieved from this survey ultimately helps provide policymakers with a snapshot of what the homelessness population looks like today. Despite the inherent difficulties that arose from social distancing while trying to have a conversation, Davis said she is “always blown away by how open to talking the folks that we are interviewing are,” and believes that “TCP did a good job doing a roughly equivalent quality of data gathering.” 

One new question that was asked in this year’s survey was on the individuals’ willingness to accept a COVID-19 vaccine. It was found that many of those who were surveyed were not eager to get this vaccine. “We were asking people if they would take the vaccine, and it was almost an overwhelming, unanimous ‘no,’” said Reginald Black, a member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness who volunteered with the count. Black is also a vendor and artist with Street Sense Media.

“I think that is part of stigmatized information the unhoused are getting, and the lack of reconciliation between the health officials and the Black community,” he said. “I think there needs to be more information out there on what’s in these vaccines.”

In D.C., members of the Black or African American community are disproportionately affected by homelessness, with 86.4% of adults experiencing homelessness in the District belonging to this demographic. 

COVID has had a huge impact on the District’s homeless community, which will likely be reflected in the PIT count data. While the 2020 data showed a 2.2% decrease in the number of homeless individuals from 2019, the survey was conducted just weeks before the pandemic hit the U.S., causing speculation that numbers will be higher this year. 

“It is obvious to anyone who has walked outside in D.C. that homelessness looks different than it did a year ago,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, the advocacy and campaign manager at Miriam’s Kitchen. “There is national data showing that COVID-19 could increase homelessness by about 40%, which is over 2,500 people in D.C.”  

Brendan O’Flaherty, a professor of economics at Columbia University, predicted a possible rise in homelessness by 40% nationwide. In D.C. specifically, Flaherty said that rise could be closer to 6.6%, in part because of the District’s already high-rate of homelessness.

Another source of this potential increase could be due to the way the pandemic has reshaped the daily lives of people experiencing homelessness. While emergency shelters have begun operating 24/7 instead of evenings only, social distancing in congregate shelters creates challenges for clients. Without large supplies of hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, trying to keep shelters sanitary and safe has proved difficult. 

Places that these individuals would typically frequent, such as restaurants, libraries or grocery stores, are no longer open, leaving them without alternative shelter, especially for people who would have had multiple employment obligations. “I think overall we will see more people counted that are unsheltered, which is due to them not being counted originally,”  Black said. “These were the people who were missed traditionally by the city because they were doing other things, they may be couch surfing, or they may be working.” 

TCP, the quasi-governmental organization that manages the city’s Homeless Management Information System database for HUD and receives a nearly $80 million contract from the D.C. Department of Human Services to manage many outreach and prevention services including city shelters, will compile the data before sharing it with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. While it will not be released for several months, the impact that COVID-19 has had on these individuals will likely shine through in these numbers. New programs, such as PEP-V, which places individuals who are more vulnerable to COVID in hotels, have helped alleviate some of the surface-level problems. However, many volunteers still hope to see more funding dedicated to ending homelessness.

[Read more: PEP-V hovers around full capacity without enough housing options for vulnerable people]

COVID-19 has served as just another reminder that housing is a human right, and when individuals live without housing, the safety and health of our community is greatly affected. 

“It seems like for the past year that people have been asked to stay home for numerous occasions, whether that’s COVID, the insurrection, the inauguration, or white supremacists coming to D.C., but staying home isn’t possible if you don’t have one,” Rabinowitz said. “When we think about the high-risk groups, people who are older, people who have underlying health conditions, that’s people experiencing chronic homelessness.” 

Nationwide efforts to keep people home are not applicable for those who must resort to congregate shelters, or otherwise do not have a place to call home. The PIT count serves as a driver of this urgency to help individuals access the housing and health care services both them and our community need to thrive.