An annual census of homeless people in Dallas and Collin counties that helps the city determine how its homeless programs are working will still take place during the COVID-19 pandemic, although at a later date, over a longer time period and with far fewer people doing the counting, according to a city memo.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities that receive certain federal grants intended to combat homelessness to count sheltered homeless individuals annually. Unsheltered counts are required every other year, but many counties, including Dallas and Collin, do both annually.
Usually, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the lead agency for the homeless response system in Dallas and Collin counties, gathers 1,750 volunteers to be trained to conduct the "Point-in-Time" count in a single night. Cities across the country commonly conduct this survey on a single morning or night in January, hoping cold weather will drive more people into shelters, making them easier to find.
This year, however, HUD sought plans that would reduce close physical contact with the people being counted. Only Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s street outreach teams and members of the city’s Office of Homelessness Solutions will take part this year. The count will be conducted over a two-week period from Feb. 18 to March 3, and the number of people conducting it will shrink to about 100, said David Gruber, development and communications director at the alliance.
Additionally, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance will partner with county health departments to provide PPE and rapid COVID-19 tests to street outreach workers if vaccines have not already been made available to them.
Gruber explained the importance of these counts like this: “Imagine you’re flying an airplane. When you’re flying, you’ve got the windows outside the cockpit. You get a lot of data that way. Then you have your instruments that pick up data and that way you know where to fly, where not to fly. If suddenly you did not have any data, you wouldn’t be able to fly the plane. For that matter, you could hit the side of a mountain and not know it.”
This annual count allows the agency to track different aspects, like how many women are homeless, how many men are homeless and what’s working and what’s not working to reduce homelessness.
Last year, the count found that after years of increases, Dallas saw fewer people experiencing homelessness. It also found the city's efforts were successful in moving those people from one place to another, but not getting them off the streets and into housing.
The pandemic will poke some holes in the data set.
“It’s very different, not only in the way that we’re conducting [the count] but also in what we hope to get from it,” Gruber said.
HUD expects this to be the case. In fact, the count of unsheltered individuals isn’t even required this year. Some communities have opted out of the count completely because of the dangers posed by the pandemic.
The department is also allowing municipalities to use sampling instead of conducting a complete count. While this takes less time and reduces the risk of contracting the virus, sampling relies on assumptions about where the homeless people are and isn't as accurate as a full census. According to Bloomberg, these counts are understood to be off by as much as half or more even in normal circumstances.
In an emailed statement to the Observer, a spokesperson for HUD said that as of Jan. 5, 150 "continuums of care" – nearly 40% – have requested some kind of an exception to the point-in-time count for unsheltered homeless. Continuums of care are the regional bodies like the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance that coordinate, among other things, the annual counts. HUD anticipates more will request exceptions or waivers.
For the counties willing to conduct their counts, HUD is only looking for an answer to one question: Did homelessness increase, decrease or stay the same in the pandemic?
The answer is anyone’s guess, Gruber said.
The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance has already seen an uptick in homelessness, likely due to pandemic-related job loss and evictions. On the other hand, Gruber said coronavirus-related funds allow municipalities to expand their efforts. “We’ve been able to do things that we haven’t been able to do before,” he said. In Dallas, for example, three hotels have been purchased to be used as housing. The hope is to continue moving in this direction so cities can see a decrease in homelessness, or at least hold the line.
“We’re doing our best as a system, as well as others, to get folks into housing as soon as possible so we can use this crisis for something good,” Gruber said. “At the end of the day, what we now understand, if we didn’t understand before, is that having housing isn’t just essential to your life. It might be the difference between life and death. We’re told to stay at home, and it sounds good, but what if you don’t have a home?”
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