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Jan 18, 2021
Originally published on January 18, 2021 2:08 pm


Every January, in the middle of the night, thousands of volunteers and outreach workers try to count the nation's homeless population. They search highway underpasses, wooded areas, abandoned buildings, sidewalks for those living outside. Due to the pandemic, this year's street count has been canceled or modified in hundreds of communities, even as the numbers appear to be on the rise. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The nation's annual homeless count involves a lot more than counting. It also involves asking people a long list of questions so service providers know what types of help they need.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you have diabetes?




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Any physical disabilities?


FESSLER: This survey also asked a homeless man during Washington, D.C.'s, 2019 count about his veteran status, his income and whether he received benefits such as food stamps. But this year, communities worry such interactions could help spread COVID-19. So with the permission of the federal government, which requires the survey, many places are scaling back.

NICOLE HARMON: Safety is one of our primary concerns.

FESSLER: Nicole Harmon oversees housing aid for Arlington County, Va. She says they've made a number of changes for next week's count.

HARMON: We're no longer able to take vans, where you could load up six to eight volunteers and staff to go out and perform the count. So smaller group of teams, no more than four members per team, and I think we're going to have about four teams go out this year.

FESSLER: And those teams will be made up of county and homeless shelter staff instead of the usual volunteers. A lot of communities are doing the same. Others are shortening, even forgoing, the surveys and simply counting the number of people living outside. Many cities with the largest homeless populations - such as Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles - are canceling the count altogether.

HEIDI MARSTON: Given everything that's happened with COVID, we took a pretty hard evaluation of what it was going to take to do the unsheltered count in particular.

FESSLER: Heidi Marston is executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Last year, the county found more than 48,000 people living outside, which is a lot to count.

MARSTON: In order to conduct this well, it requires three nights of dedicated volunteers - over 8,000 in total - a lot of in-person training, a lot of in-person counting.

FESSLER: Which is especially challenging given a recent spike in COVID cases and stay-at-home orders in L.A. Marston notes that her county does have one advantage. Her outreach workers are constantly collecting information about those living outside.

MARSTON: So while we won't have a number at the end of the year to report, we have so much other data and information that we can use to fill in that gap to tell us what is it looking like right now in the context of COVID-19.

FESSLER: And like other communities, they'll still be counting those living inside homeless shelters and temporary housing. Still, that leaves a big hole in the nation's understanding of its unsheltered population, the people who live in tents, cars and boxes, and are at greatest risk of illness and death.

DENNIS CULHANE: Foregoing the count means that we're going to miss a pretty crucial data point.

FESSLER: Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania has helped gather and analyze information about homelessness for years. He says the trends are important, especially when it comes to getting money from Congress.

CULHANE: Particularly in light of COVID, you know, there's been widespread reports that there's an increase in unsheltered homelessness around the country.

FESSLER: But, he says, nobody knows for sure. Some advocates think there's too much reliance on the annual count. It only provides a snapshot in time, and the national numbers come out long after they've been collected. In fact, the results of last January's homeless count won't be released until next month.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMOCK'S "SCATTERING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.