Jan 27, 2023 - News

First homeless count in 3 years short of volunteers

Salvador Espinoza hands a man a pair of socks at a homeless camp in Austin on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo: Sergio Flores for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Austin nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, is preparing for the area's first count of the local homeless population in three years.

Why it matters: The results of the annual count will show whether city strategies to create more shelter space and build housing units are making a dent in the Austin homeless population, which has climbed with the city's overall population growth.

  • The count, which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps determine how much federal funding the county receives for housing-related programs. It also informs local strategic planning to address homelessness.

Yes, but: ECHO is roughly 400 volunteers short of its 1,000-person goal.

  • It's doable but not ideal, a spokesperson for the group told Axios.
  • The point-in-time count requires volunteers to travel on foot overnight to find people sleeping in tents, cars and other places not meant for human habitation.
  • It's a tough job that requires volunteers to wake people up in the middle of the night to collect information about their age, gender, race and other information.

The big picture: The pandemic and a volunteer shortage canceled previous counts of both sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness.

  • The count also comes as Austin leaders struggle to create more housing options amid new rules that ban people from camping in public spaces.

By the numbers: A rough estimate from ECHO found that at least 4,611 people were without a home in Travis County on a single day in October 2022 — tallied using the number of requests for housing and medical services.

  • The group also estimates that the number of people without housing has grown 7.4% in Travis County since 2019, but the point-in-time count will provide a more accurate reflection of the change.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Travis County's total population has increased 10.5% during that time.

Reality check: ECHO and other advocacy groups agree the survey is an imperfect tool, largely believed to undercount the number of people experiencing homelessness.

  • For example, if someone stayed on a friend's couch the night of the count, they wouldn't be counted, even if they otherwise are unsheltered.
  • If a person finds an abandoned house or other places to shelter, they won't be tallied.
  • If someone leaves their encampment before dawn, counters have no way of locating them.

How to volunteer: Volunteers should be comfortable walking several miles on their shift, complete a 2-hour mandatory training and expect to spend roughly five hours volunteering on the night of the count.


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