The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. conducts annual count of homeless residents

Many cities opted out of the process in 2021. This year’s will be the first to capture the impact of the pandemic on homelessness nationwide.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) walks among tents along New York Avenue as she and U.S. housing secretary Marcia L. Fudge take part in count of the District's homeless population. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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William Mack leaned against a blast of cold wind at the corner New York Avenue and 14th Street NW in downtown Washington. The 58-year-old had been living on the streets for the past year. The tent where he slept was broken, and he was trying to flag down passersby for shoeshines to earn enough money for a new one.

But as Mack took a break Wednesday night, he admitted it was harder to get attention lately — either from potential clients or official channels for help — because so many more people seemed to be in his situation.

“The last year for sure,” he said, explaining he has noticed more people living on the street, creating a scramble for resources. “I’ve been on a waiting list for a Section 8 voucher for years.”

Mack’s personal observations were about to be put to the test. Down the block, civic leaders and volunteers were shivering outside the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the starting point for the annual point-in-time count. The once-a-year head count of individuals experiencing homelessness includes people living on the street and those in shelters.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local social service providers to conduct the survey, and the snapshot that emerges of homelessness informs budget allocations and shapes strategies.

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As the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, Amerigroup D.C., and other groups were set to begin walking the streets, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was joined by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge, who noted that this year’s count was a critical barometer to size up the impact of the pandemic. Many cities opted out of 2021′s count due to covid-19 concerns. The District was among the few that did one.

“You did, but a lot didn’t,” Fudge said. “We need to figure out what the trends are in homelessness, and we need to tell people we care enough to figure out what’s going on.”

The count comes as homelessness has become a divisive issue both in the District and across the nation. That larger friction has amped up long-standing debate over whether the count is an accurate and reliable way to measure the size of the homeless population.

Advocates, academics and the U.S. Government Accountability Office have questioned the effectiveness of the method. In a July 2020 report examining its effectiveness, the GAO noted the strategy probably resulted in an undercount of homelessness. The report added that better accuracy was critical because so much of the data drawn from the count resulted in how HUD allocated funds and how local governments budget that money. Some cities have begun looking into new ways to count the homeless.

Asked Wednesday night about the concerns over the accuracy of the annual exercise, Fudge said: “This is the way we do it now. There may be a better way, and we’re willing to look at it.”

The 2020 count found an estimated 580,000 Americans experiencing homelessness. Sixty-one percent of those individuals were living in shelters or transitional housing. The rest were on the street. It was the forth consecutive year the numbers had gone up, with a 2 percent jump between 2019 and 2020. It was also the first year since the count’s beginning when more people experiencing homelessness were living on the streets than living in shelters.

But the social and economic turbulence set off by the virus probably threw many Americans into homelessness, experts say. Twenty million Americans lost their jobs between March and April 2020. Researchers estimated 40 million Americans faced eviction — the only barricade protecting many of those renters were federal and local eviction moratoriums that had expired by early 2022.

Social service agencies on the front lines say they are expecting the count will show an increase in the number of homeless.

“We are concerned with what we’ve heard anecdotally, and we see it sadly every day,” said Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing D.C. “There are more people sleeping outside.”

The increased visibility of homelessness — tent cities popping up in city parks and on sidewalks — has generated intense political reactions. The National Coalition for the Homeless has tracked encampment sweeps in 55 American cities, which have in some cases been followed by what advocates say is a swell in targeted attacks on individuals experiencing homelessness.

The District’s unhoused population has been caught in similar public crossfire. The city was one of the jurisdictions that went forward with last year’s count, finding 5,111 individuals. Since 2016, the number of families in D.C. experiencing homelessness has declined by 73.4 percent.

Since last year, however, Bowser has implemented a series of encampment cleanups as part of a pilot program to fast track the unsheltered into housing. The program has drawn pushback from both housing advocates and members of the D.C. Council.

Those who question the effectiveness of the count focus on the fact that it takes place on one night and is conducted not by professionals but by volunteers. In its report, the GAO suggested improving the process with “quality assurance checks” on each jurisdiction’s methods and “more detailed instructions on using probability sampling techniques to complete.”

But for now, as the country tries to make sense of what the pandemic has done to Americans, the count is what many cities are left to work with.

“We can debate whether we should do it a different way, and there could be better ways to do it,” said Respress said. “But we do need numbers year over year. How do we know if we are making a change if we don’t have data? We need to be able to hold ourselves accountable.”