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How Do We Measure Homelessness

Homelessness impacts people in communities across our country. Although resources and methods to provide housing are consistently growing and providing better comprehensive care, it’s difficult to meet people’s needs unless we can accurately measure the scope of homelessness in a community.

However, measuring homelessness can be difficult due to the lack of a clear definition of homelessness, the transience and mobility of the population, and the cyclical nature of homelessness for many individuals and families. Historically, measuring homelessness in a community has been done through the “point in time count.” This means that the city will conduct a count, often annually, of how many people are homeless at one point in time. This count is meant to be reflective of how many people may be homeless at any given time of the year and the number is used as the reference point for future planning and resourcing in any given area. These counts are used to get government funding for shelters and other agencies and therefore become a very important feature in terms of how shelter and care organizations operate throughout the year.

Though the point in time count may provide some insight into the homeless population of a community, it cannot measure homelessness in the way that is needed to truly eliminate homelessness in communities. A few weeks ago on Real Hope, I had the honor of speaking to Emma Beers from the Community Solutions Built for Zero movement. Emma provided us with a depth of insight when it comes to how organizations can effectively measure homelessness so that they can achieve what Emma calls “functional zero” homelessness. Functional zero homelessness means that a community has solved homelessness for a population and, when homelessness does occur, it is rare and brief. Emma addressed the challenges that come with measuring homelessness in a community using the point in time method and also spoke to the benefits of a new way of measuring homelessness in communities.

By-name list as a alternative to the point in time count

As someone who had performed the point in time counts for communities that she served, Emma knew firsthand how this method could never provide an accurate picture of homelessness in a given community. Emma said that there was always a significant discrepancy between the point in time count and what she calls a “by-name list.” The by-name list” identified each individual by-name who was currently unhoused in their community. The point in time count was consistently different from the names they had recorded, highlighting the lack of accuracy in that method of measurement. This discrepancy in turn leads to a number of proceeding issues, especially when it comes to federal, local, and state funding that goes toward shelters and other organizations serving the homeless population. Without an accurate count and not really knowing who the people are who need shelter in your community, trying to provide the services and care that they need becomes extremely challenging and comes down to a lot of inefficient guesswork.

The benefits of the by-name list 

Rather than the point in time count, Emma and others have begun advocating for the by-name list because it provides a comprehensive list of every person in the community experiencing homelessness and it is updated in real-time. When someone attains housing, their name is removed from the list but kept within a system to ensure that the count of people who are homeless is constantly up to date. By maintaining the name list, communities can track the ever-changing size and composition of their homeless population while also keeping detailed records about every homeless person in the area. 

This catalog of personal information and knowledge provides several enormous benefits both to the people experiencing homelessness and those working to eliminate homelessness in a community. Firstly, the by-name list restores human dignity to the homeless individual. They are not merely a number on a list, they are not interchangeable, they are a named human being who is known, recognized, and actively being cared for in this difficult season of life. So often, people who are homeless feel alone, isolated, and like they have become less than human. From panhandling to other actions that homeless people often must take in order to earn money, the experience of homelessness can be incredibly demeaning and demoralizing. A by-name list honors the humanity of the individual and reinstills a sense of worth that can oftentimes be lost in the trauma and challenges associated with homelessness. They are no longer a number, but a member of the community. 

Secondly, a by-name list allows shelters and organizations like Community Solutions to track interventions and tell if they are working in a community to reduce homelessness. When an intervention is working, organizations know immediately who benefited from that intervention and how it specifically met their needs. If an intervention seems like a good idea but the by-name list indicates that it really isn’t helping individuals get off the streets, an organization can make course corrections to adjust and adapt to the actual needs of those individuals who need homes. A once-per-year snapshot that the point in time count offers doesn’t allow for this kind of agility to adapt and serve the homeless population as best as possible. 

Finally, because each person is known by-name, homeless services are able to create a profile that includes their background, health issues, their homeless history, and housing needs. This profile can be shared, with consent, with other organizations that are serving the homeless community in order to create a continuum of care that ultimately ensures they will have their needs met. Because all of this information is known and the individual is being tracked by-name, it typically results in a much shorter time of homelessness. Knowing the individual’s needs enables workers to better match their housing needs and provide the resources they need most.

Providing superior care and honor to homeless individuals

The move in measuring homelessness from the point in time count to the by-name list is providing superior care and more effectively housing homeless individuals. From restoring human dignity to homeless individuals to keeping health and homeless records, the by-name list is transforming how we think about and care for the homeless population. As we continue to work towards eliminating homelessness in our communities, the by-name list reflects our God who knows each of His sheep by-name. May we continue to love and serve this vulnerable population with the same respect and honor that our Heavenly Father does.

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