News

KATU: PIT undercounts homeless by significant margins, experts say
Author: Angelica Thornton
Posted: February 19, 2020

To read the original, visit KATU.

Over the next few weeks we’re expecting to get new estimates on how many people are living on the streets in our communities, but they might not be the best numbers to count on.

In January, KATU News tagged along as Washington County workers prepared to hit the streets by filling bags with care packages.

“They hand out socks, hats, handwarmers, some snacks, toiletries — anything like that, we hand out,” said Traci Downer, an outreach worker with the county.

Their job is to find people who are living outside in tents, in cars or in emergency shelters. They offer up the supplies, keep count and see if they can get any more information.

“There are questions about how long they’ve been homeless, if they have disabilities —kind of where they were living before they became homeless,” Downer said.

The Point In Time, or PIT, count is done on a single day or, in many cases, a single night in cities and towns across the country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires it from communities that are getting federal funding to help end homelessness.

HUD uses the numbers to compile a report for Congress that paints a picture of homelessness in America. But PIT uses a very broad brush. Experts say it undercounts the number of homeless by a significant margin.

“I’d say that it’s reliable for who you find, and so it’s entirely driven on the number of people you find,” said Marisa Zapata, the director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative.

She said in addition to being expensive and time consuming, PIT numbers are often misused by public officials and the media.

“I do think that we need to be relying on more robust datasets to be driving our policy decisions,” Zapata said. “We have a lot of that data. Getting focused on whether the PIT count goes up or down – again it’s an indicator of what might be happening, what might be problematic, what might be going well. But when we get engrossed in a number that is really not that helpful, it really runs a danger.”

PSU released its own numbers last summer that showed 38,000 homeless people in the Portland-metropolitan area, seven times higher than the estimated Point In Time count used by the state and federal government.

The report included people who are often left uncounted because of federal limits on what defines homelessness, like the hidden homeless, people who are living doubled up with friends or family.

Even more alarming, the report concluded 107,000 households in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties were at risk of homelessness.

“They could be homeless one or two years from now,” said Zapata. “They could be displaced. We know the impact, particularly on children, from being forced to move from place to place to afford rent are detrimental across the lifetime.”

Despite its flaws, Zapata said PIT does give us a snapshot and shows us trends. The last one in Multnomah County showed a significant increase in the number of African Americans and Native Americans experiencing homelessness.

“Being out there and seeing how they have to live every day is really difficult,” said Downer.

Washington County outreach workers say PIT counts might not be perfect, but it does help them raise awareness about homelessness and often connects people who are living on the streets with the resources they need to survive.

The last Multnomah County Point In Time report was released in August. It showed a big 22% jump in the number of unsheltered homeless people in 2019. That means they’re living and sleeping outside a home, shelter or facility.