It was about 11:00 PM on a Thursday night, and three women walked into a 24-hour McDonald’s in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. They saw a group of men sitting at a table looking tired and a bit rough. They approached the table and asked if any of the men identified as being homeless, and if so, would they be willing to answer some questions about their experience. The men graciously invited them to sit down and start a conversation.
This kind of interaction happened all over the city on January 26, 2017, when Chicago conducted its annual Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless count. This is a nationwide event to count the number of homeless living on the streets and in shelters in major cities. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires all cities that receive federal funding for homeless services to conduct a PIT count of sheltered homeless every year and of unsheltered homeless every two years, but Chicago counts all homeless every year.
How does the PIT count happen?
The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and All Chicago, a membership organization whose mission is to prevent and end homelessness in Chicago, coordinate the PIT count. Deborah’s Place, a member of All Chicago, also serves as a lead agency in organizing volunteers for the PIT count.
This year, more than 400 volunteers gathered at lead agency sites to go out across the city and look for the homeless living on the street. Teams of three or more people drove through every neighborhood from 9:30 PM until 2:00 AM equipped with supplies – blankets, coats, hats, gloves, socks, supply packs and more – with the goal of finding people to interview or simply tally. Each team had a stack of surveys and tally sheets and received training on how to approach and engage with the homeless they encountered.
The coordinators of the PIT count look to recruit at least 300 volunteers, so having more volunteers made the experience better for everyone involved. “Many volunteers want to engage with the homeless,” says Adriana D’Amore Camarda at DFSS, “but of course, it would be ideal to not find anyone on the street.” Unfortunately, there are always people on the street, even when it is extremely cold, and the information volunteers collect is invaluable to helping understand the causes of homelessness and develop strategies to address the complex issues facing this population.
What does the data tell us?
The data gathered from year to year show trends in homelessness, which help the city and service providers address the most prominent issues affecting the population. According to Ms. Camarda, “Annual reporting is the only way you can measure change.” We now know that there has been a growth in encampments, like the ones under the north side viaducts, in the past two years. There has also been a small, but steady, increase in the number of unaccompanied women who are homeless over the past several years. The challenge is to figure out the causes for these trends and work to address them.
What do volunteers learn?
From the perspective of volunteers, the PIT count is about so much more than data. It’s about truly seeing the homeless and engaging with those living on the street. Most first time volunteers don’t know what to expect. Stacey Quast, a new volunteer, wondered, “How many people would we see out on the streets? How many would agree to participate in our survey? And the question others wanted to know the most when I told them I was participating, would I be safe?” Her questions were answered that night, but the experience went much deeper.
As she listened to people, like the men she encountered at a McDonald’s, she began to identify with the parts of their stories that went beyond their life on the streets. Some spoke of their children – their ages, their accomplishments, how they wish they could be a part of their kids’ lives. It made her think of herself and her own parents and what it would take for them to become homeless. The face-to-face encounters with people are a big reason the PIT count is so important.
Her takeaway from that night was a better understanding of the humanness of homelessness. “We forget that the homeless are people, just like us, and they deserve to be treated as such. The community is only as strong as its members and if we cannot be a champion for our neighbors then our community is doomed to eventually fail,” she says. The PIT count is part of building a community in which the homeless truly count.