Yesterday the new King County Regional Homeless Authority announced that it would not be conducting a “Point in Time” count of homeless individuals in the county in January. This has the potential to be a very good thing, if the RHA uses the pause to retool its counting process into something more accurate and that delivers more useful, relevant information for responding to the homelessness crisis.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires counties receiving federal housing funding to conduct a Point-in-Time (PIT) count in odd-numbered years. King County has been conducting them annually for many years, though it changed its methodology in 2017 in a manner that doesn’t allow for comparisons with earlier years’ counts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county (and many others throughout the country) received a waiver this year from conducting the PIT count, and since 2022 is an even-numbered year it is not officially required to conduct one next year.
Here is the top-level summary of the RHA’s reasoning behind its decision:
The federal Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) requires a Point In Time (“PIT”) Count of people living unsheltered to be conducted every two years in order to receive federal funding. But, the PIT is widely understood to be an undercount, especially in suburban and rural communities. Recognizing that, and because 2022 is not a required year, the RHA will not be conducting the traditional, volunteer-driven PIT Count this coming January. Instead, we will conduct qualitative engagements with people living unsheltered, and we are developing that research plan in collaboration with the Lived Experience Coalition, service providers, and stakeholders across King County.
It goes on to describe at a high-level some of the issues with the Point-in-Time count:
Because of the methodology, the PIT is widely understood to be an undercount, which can be harmful in skewing the narrative and limiting the budget and resources dedicated to solutions. Instead, we will conduct qualitative engagement with people living unsheltered to learn more about their experiences and how we can better meet their needs.
In addition to qualitative engagement, KCRHA is working with data partners to explore other ways of collecting a more accurate number of people experiencing homelessness, including development of a By Name List.
The RHA is right; the Point-in-Time count methodology is a mess. Two years ago, when Seattle and King County were celebrating a 2019 PIT count that seemed to show a drop in homelessness, SCC Insight pointed out that there were several reasons to question the accuracy of the count and the companion survey — and that in fact we had no idea how many homeless people were living in King County. The 2020 Point in Time count was little improved, and the terrible weather and lack of volunteers on the night of the count magnified the methodology issues.
It’s a good sign that the RHA is now admitting the painfully obvious, and is taking a step back from blindly continuing a broken process. But coming up with a better way to conduct the count, one that provides not only more accurate information but also data that leads to better decision-making, will be one of several key tests for the newly-formed organization over the next year. Hopefully, as the RHA’s explanation above suggests, it will be part of a larger research and data-gathering strategy aligned with the county’s planning efforts for affordable housing, emergency shelter, behavioral health treatment programs, and other resources for the homeless population.
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