Jan 27, 2022 - News

D.C. conducts its annual homelessness count

Illustration of rows of tally marks
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With temperatures plummeting into the teens, volunteers in D.C. headed out Wednesday night to survey how many people were sleeping on the streets as part of an annual effort to measure homelessness.

Why it matters: The federally required point-in-time count happens annually across the country and helps inform local policies on ending homelessness.

  • That’s why the count is done in the first month of the year: to give housing advocates and policymakers a better sense of what services can be offered and improved upon.
  • The count shows two things: “How many people are literally sleeping outside in the most extreme weather … we know that shelter is not housing, shelter is a temporary solution, so are people accessing shelter even on the coldest of nights?” asks Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC. “And if they're not, we want to know why not.”

Details: Just past 9:30 p.m. outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library on Wednesday night, a group of 12 volunteers clad in yellow vests paired up to begin their walk. They carried $20 Visa gift cards and snacks to hand out to people they encountered.

  • The survey asks a series of personal questions, including demographic information, behavioral and chronic health background, and past homelessness. Last year, volunteers asked people if they’d be interested in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and collected contact information, but this year that question was not included.
  • Maria Le, who also works for Pathways to Housing DC, has volunteered for the past three years to do the count. On Wednesday night, she surveyed people sheltering under a loading dock, setting up pallets under storefronts, and huddled in doorways.
  • She said if anyone requested further services, volunteers could call the shelter hotline for a pick-up. Much of her job Wednesday night was explaining the survey to people and walking them through it.

Flashback: Last year’s count showed a 19.9% overall decline from 2020 in people experiencing homelessness in D.C., driven largely by a big decrease among families experiencing homelessness.

  • On a single night in January 2021, 5,111 people were counted as experiencing homelessness.
  • The total number of families experiencing homelessness declined by 49% between 2020 and 2021 while the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness declined only slightly.
  • The count also showed significant disparities: 86% of adults in D.C. experiencing homelessness are Black, yet only 46% of D.C. residents are Black. The median age for single adults experiencing homelessness was 52, and men comprised the majority of single adults.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness attributed some of these declines last year to federal pandemic-related action, including the eviction ban which is being phased out in D.C.

What they’re saying: Respress suspects that the numbers of people sleeping outside have increased, but is waiting to see the data to see whether local and federal investments in reducing homelessness have been working, particularly for single adults.

  • “Are we seeing a number of people who are newly experiencing homelessness? That has been the number one concern,” as the eviction ban is phased out, Repress says.

Between the lines: The Bowser administration has made ending homelessness a key goal — although COVID-19 derailed some of those plans and the first phase of the plan fell short of its goals. The second phase was released last year.

  • As volunteers began heading out around the city Wednesday night, Mayor Muriel Bowser briefly kicked off the event outside D.C.’s Downtown Day Services Center alongside U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, who praised D.C.’s efforts to end homelessness. 
  • "I know that this is a very important event for us to try to determine how we can end homelessness in America. This city has done it better than most," Fudge said.

What's next: The data collected by the count is expected to be publicly available later this year.

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