Every year, government, nonprofit, and media outlets reference a grand total of people experiencing homelessness (in 2020, for example, the figure that appeared was "roughly 580,000”). If you read closely, you’ll see the information introduced in an odd way, “on a single night January” versus “last year,” “each year,” etc. The number comes from an annual homeless census of sorts, but where the U.S. Census takes several years, billions of dollars, and a legion of staff, counting people experiencing homeless takes place on a single, freezing in January through handfuls of dedicated homeless service agencies and volunteers across the country. The homeless services field calls this process a Point in Time (PIT) count, and BEDS is proud to be playing a leading role in this year’s PIT.
What is the annual Point in Time (PIT) count?
Counting people experiencing homelessness is difficult. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) describes how, “it is extremely difficult to count people living in cars, abandoned buildings, and other deserted places, and some of the homeless population may not wish to be found.” Other people experiencing homelessness may “couch surf” with family or friends—temporarily moving between others’ residences where they may not use homeless services.
The Point in Time (PIT) count is the best way we have to estimate the size and makeup of community and national homeless populations.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandates PIT counts to inform policymaking and allocate funding to Continuums of Care, regional bodies that coordinate homeless services. HUD provides broad strategies for conducting PITs that center on “assembling a large number of volunteers,” “developing maps [of key areas],” and “providing adequate training” for canvassing those areas and engaging people experiencing homelessness. Each Continuum holds counts in their respective communities, which gives their member organizations chances to connect with people experiencing homelessness. The people found during PIT counts are often outside of agencies’ reach during the day and not receiving any services.
How will the PIT work?
The 2022 PIT will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 9. It has historically been held in late January on what is expected to be the most frigid night of the year—the cold logic behind the choice being that most people experiencing homelessness will be using shelters where they can be easily counted.
Dispatchers at each site will direct teams to community “hot spots” where people experiencing homelessness usually spend nights including parks, emergency rooms, forest preserves, parking garage stairwells, abandoned buildings, and cars parked outside 24-hour businesses. When teams meet people living outside, members with lived experience respectfully approach them.
PIT teams share information about BEDS services and “blessing bags” full of donated food, clothing/winter gear, hygienic supplies, and other essentials.
People reached during PIT counts can meet with a case manager and access our services within 48 hours, but in some cases, we can move much faster. During the PIT, the Hines VA Hospital has a staff person on call to immediately pick up any veterans found living outdoors. BEDS Manager of Supportive Housing Jennifer Tudor remembers finding “Hank” huddled in the corner of a parking garage stairwell: “We called the VA, and they were able to come get him right away. Later, we heard they got him an apartment in two weeks.” She continues, “that showed me the difference that the counts can make in people’s lives.”
What is BEDS role?
Manager of Supportive Housing Jennifer Tudor is acting as the PIT Regional Coordinator of the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County’s West Council. Our Ogden Avenue Supportive Housing (OASH) facility will serve as a primary staging area for the count.
This year’s PIT is crucial since the Suburban Cook County Continuum of Care did not hold one last year due to COVID-19.
Job losses, employment benefit terminations, eviction moratorium expirations, and rising rents continue to leave more people experiencing homelessness. Last year, there were unsettling national trends in the homeless population, including increases in veterans living outside of homeless shelters and people with histories of chronic homelessness, as well as disproportionate numbers of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people experiencing homelessness. Last year, the number of people we served grew 67 percent to 2802, and we expect that more people are living outdoors than in years past, and we expect to find more people living outdoors. The PIT gives us the chance to connect more people to our services. Like Carolyn Back, the Suburban Cook County PIT coordinator, says, “when people find resources and volunteers learn about homelessness through the PIT, it’s worth the effort.”
How can I help?
The Alliance to End Homeless in Suburban Cook County still needs help with the PIT. Click here to volunteer. As always, you can support our work here.
 BEDS is part of the Suburban Cook County Continuum of Care; other Illinois Continuums encompass Chicago, Decatur, Dekalb, Evanston, Joliet/Will County, the Peoria area, Rockford/Winnebago County/Boone County, Urbana/Champaign, Lake County, Du Page County, Kane County, Madison Country, McHenry County, and St. Clair County, as well as the State’s Heartland, Central, West Central, South Central, Southern, and Northwestern regions.