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Yes, there’s a better way to measure homelessness than the annual point-in-time count

Here’s how cities are using real-time data, and by-name lists, to end homelessness — and why HUD is allowing communities to use it this year.
  |  January 22, 2021

Homelessness is a dynamic problem, which changes night to night, from person to person. Yet traditional efforts to end homelessness rely on a count of people experiencing homelessness conducted only once a year.

This count, known as the point-in-time or PIT count, is mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is usually conducted by volunteers who fan out along streets in communities across the country to count the number of people who are sleeping outside.

This year, in recognition of the difficulty of conducting overnight street counts in the midst of a still-raging global pandemic, HUD is allowing flexibility in this reporting requirement. They’re allowing communities to use a by-name list instead. This is a major step for HUD and will help communities more effectively use data to end — and not merely enumerate — homelessness.

Our field is moving to real-time, by-name data in so many places. Even communities outside of Built for Zero are working hard to improve the quality and comprehensiveness of their data in HMIS. It’s time for one, coordinated, federal approach that ends the unhelpful exercise of an annual snapshot and requires and supports every community in America to know everyone experiencing homelessness by name and in real time.

Here’s how by-name list data provides a clearer picture of the state of homelessness on the ground — and why this change can help end homelessness.

What is the point-in-time count?

Every January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities that receive federal funding to count the total number of people experiencing homelessness in their jurisdictions.

To collect point-in-time count data, front-line staff and volunteers hit the streets and count the number of people they see experiencing unsheltered homelessness, collecting basic demographic information as they go. People who show up at service points in the following days, such as shelters and transitional housing, are added to the count too. The data is reported to HUD, and nearly a year later, the results of this national homelessness census are released in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

Communities relying on this data may be stuck solving yesterday’s problem, without an ability to see today’s situation.

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Better data allows cities to make better use of existing resources. One striking measure is that 93 percent of the reduction in homelessness in cities that have adopted the Community Solutions approach has been achieved without new spending on housing.”

Read more, from the New York Times Editorial Board

Beth Sandor, Co-Director of Built for Zero, explains how communities use data visualization to help track and reduce homelessness. Here, she shows data from Bakersfield, California, a community that has since reached functional zero for chronic homelessness.

Real-time data — and by-name lists — help communities end homelessness

Communities in Built for Zero have proven it is possible to end homelessness when their systems are oriented around real-time, person-specific data.

As part of Built for Zero, 79 communities have achieved quality, real-time data, enabling them to know everybody experiencing homelessness by name, in real time, and with quantitative reliability. Using what is called a by-name list, Built for Zero communities have a comprehensive accounting of every person experiencing homelessness locally, regardless of sheltered or unsheltered status, updated at least monthly. 

Built for Zero communities leverage this data to track population-level changes, like inflow and outflow, which are critical to making targeted investments and changes to the system. And this rapid feedback loop tells them if they are driving reliable reductions in homelessness, and informs quicker, more adaptive decision-making. This includes how to use vital resources, such as funding, housing stock, and other community services.

This method is working: to date, 14 communities have ended homelessness, using their by-name list data. Dozens more are driving reductions in homelessness. Altogether, more than 120,000 people have been housed by this movement, rooted in real-time data.

Homelessness is a dynamic problem — people are entering and exiting the system constantly. That’s why you need real-time data to track it. We call this real-time tracking the by-name list.


What’s the difference between a by-name list and HMIS data?

A Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) is a database communities use to track how people experiencing homelessness interact with services. Communities incorporate this data into their by-name list.

By continually consolidating data from HMIS and local partners outside of the HUD-funded homeless-response system, plus constant outreach to individuals that might be disconnected from supportive services, communities have found it possible to identify everyone experiencing homelessness and support them from first contact all the way to achieving permanent stable housing. This continual, by name approach gives all stakeholders a clear understanding of the community’s unique homelessness crisis in real time, allowing quicker case resolution for individuals and more efficient resource allocation across the community.

Making the shift to real-time data permanent

Encouraging the use of by-name lists to measure homelessness is a necessary and promising step, and we urge the Biden-Harris Administration to move in the direction of requiring all communities to to have quality, real-time, person-specific data, regardless of sheltered or unsheltered status, updated at least monthly.