How many people are experiencing homelessness, anyway?

Each year, in the last ten days of January, communities across the United States participate in what is called a “Point in Time Count,” or PIT Count. During the PIT Count, shelters and transitional housing programs tally how many people are experiencing sheltered homelessness in their community. This count is done using each community’s HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) which collects data on persons experiencing homelessness and allows agencies to coordinate across systems while protecting personal data.  

Volunteers check in to help with the annual Point in Time Count.

Locally, the Coalition to End Homelessness in Wichita/Sedgwick County (formerly known as Impact ICT – Continuum of Care), the homelessness coalition backed by United Way of the Plains, conducts a PIT Count and a Housing Inventory Count annually. Every other year, communities also count how many people are experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the community. In Sedgwick County, the coalition completes an unsheltered and sheltered count every year through volunteer support.

In communities with large populations of unhoused persons, this count can involve thousands of volunteers doing a mix of interviews, observations, and estimations. In smaller population communities, like Sedgwick County, survey teams seek out each person experiencing unsheltered homelessness and interview them.  

More than just a count

However, it is not just about an interview – for some unsheltered folks encountered on PIT Count day, it may be the first time they have any contact with outreach teams since they became homeless. Counters share a list of community resources, such as emergency shelters and day shelters, which often serve as the first step to accessing case management and ending their cycle of homelessness. Participants in the interview are also given a bag of items to tide them over until they make it to shelter, like socks, gloves, and snack food.  

Service provider extend aid to an individual experiencing homelessness.

Most important of all, survey teams are trained to respectfully engage with people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is often the result of relationships breaking down and systems failing people who need help. That trauma leads to distrust and an unwillingness to accept help. Through respect, the surveyors assure their interviewee of their inherent dignity and start building the trust needed for people to accept help.  

While the count is a requirement by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the results also provide valuable insights that are used to identify resources needed to address this important issue, make local funding decisions, study trends and increase awareness about those who don’t have shelter. 

PIT Count Results

The results of each community’s count, after being vetted by reviewers with HUD, are combined into a single, one-night snapshot of homelessness. This snapshot is broken down into national, state, and CoC-level numbers, while also estimating the number of chronically homeless persons, homeless veterans, and homeless children and youth. 

This “snapshot” provides just one glimpse of what homelessness looks like across the country. In 2022, HUD estimates that 582,462 people (more than the entire population of Sedgwick County) experienced homelessness on a single night. In 2022, in Sedgwick County, 690 of our neighbors experienced homelessness. Unlike the rest of the country, where only 60% of persons were sheltered, our community sheltered 82% of our unhoused neighbors.  Find our local 2023 PIT Count Snapshot here

Factors to Consider in the PIT Count 

That said, the Point in Time Count provides just a single, one-day snapshot of homelessness. While an important data collection effort and a good benchmark to how the country is moving towards or away from ending homelessness, it only captures a single frame of the moving picture that is homelessness. Each day, new families experience homelessness because of eviction, job loss, or other crises. Also each day, families are housed with support from the CoC, their families, friends, and neighbors.

This means that the actual number of people experiencing homelessness at any one point in time can fluctuate for several reasons, such as weather conditions, shelter bed availability, and economic conditions. The total number of persons served in shelter and housed by the CoC housing programs often exceeds the PIT Count number. This can lead to confusion, especially as shelters report out a different number of people served than the CoC reports through the PIT Count. However, the difference in numbers is usually attributed to the period the report is looking at – one day is vastly different than a full year of service.  

Additionally, the PIT Count, as prescribed by HUD to reduce variations in data quality, is limited in who it can consider as “homeless.” Persons who are in jail, hospital, couch surfing, living out of their cars but working during the day, or doubled up with another household in too-small-a-unit, may either be missed by the counters or not eligible for the PIT Count. For example, Wichita Public School’s McKinney-Vento program identified that 1,621 students aged 0-18 were served by their program in the 2022-2023 school year. However, because of the difference in definitions of what counts as homeless, the CoC reported only serving 374 0–18-year-olds in a similar period.  

So, how many people are experiencing homelessness, anyway?

Throughout 2022, agencies part of the Coalition to End Homelessness in Wichita/Sedgwick County, and who are often funded partners of United Way of the Plains, served 3,082 individuals experiencing homelessness. In that time, those experiencing homelessness were served 107,100 times with shelter, meals, clothing, housing, employment and getting a place of their own to call home.

On behalf of those 3,082 neighbors, thank you for supporting the United Way of the Plains and all our partner agencies who are working to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.


Published On: November 22, 2023Tags: , , ,


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