Citing COVID-19 concerns, Austin's Ending Community Homelessness Coalition announced via a release on Thursday that the annual Point in Time Count would not happen this year.
The PIT Count is a nationwide event that enlists hundreds of volunteers to track the number of people experiencing homelessness and count data on the city's homeless population; the PIT Count is required in communities that receive federal funding for homelessness relief.
Instead, ECHO requested an exception from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to use other resources to measure homelessness data this year. It will be using the Homeless Management Information System for 2021.
Last year, Austin's PIT Count was taken by 886 volunteers. In its statement, ECHO said that going through with the count "would be irresponsible at best and negligent at worst," for the following reasons:
- Rising COVID-19 cases in Austin/Travis County that recently triggered Stage 5 guidelines
- People experiencing homelessness are at high risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19 and contact tracing is more difficult
- A lack of health insurance in Austin/Travis County limits access to testing and/or treatment
- An in-person count would pull resources, within ECHO and among direct service providers, away from the COVID-19 emergency response
- A lower volunteer turnout resulting from safety guidelines would almost certainly lead to an undercount, which is more damaging to the response system than estimating the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness using other datasets
ECHO said it would expect to see an increase in homelessness if they did perform a count, due in part to the economic struggles the Austin community has faced in light of COVID-19.
"A lot of people are hurting right now, and while we don't currently have data to show an increase in homelessness in Austin as a result, we expect to start seeing the effects in the coming weeks and months," ECHO Research and Evaluation Director Akram Al-Turk said. "We can look to other data points, like unemployment and eviction rates, to understand the impact of the pandemic and how many families will continue to suffer without assistance from every level of government."
ECHO counted 2,506 people across the city experiencing homelessness in 2020. 1,574 of them were without shelter altogether, a 45% increase in the city's unsheltered population from 2019. Homelessness has been one of the most pressing issues facing the city in recent years.
This year, ECHO will still count the number of individuals experiencing sheltered homelessness on Jan. 28, and the Housing Inventory Count, which measures housing opportunities. With that data and the HMIS count, ECHO will estimate unsheltered homelessness on the night of the count.
ECHO said they don't anticipate this to impact funding.
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