Annual homeless count canceled in Maricopa County because of COVID

By: - February 5, 2021 3:27 pm

Volunteer Andy Wambach approaches two men sitting on mattresses in a vacant lot in west Phoenix on Jan. 28, 2020. The volunteers are tasked with counting every person experiencing homelessness they encounter on their assigned “grid.” Photo by Madeline Ackley | Arizona Mirror

On one night at the beginning of the year, counties across the country attempt to count the number of homeless people in their area.

The count, officially known as the Point-In-Time Homeless Count, is split into two components: Homeless shelters submit their data for the night, while volunteers have the daunting task of counting as many people as they can find who spent the night outside, in their vehicle or in another place “unfit for human habitation.” 

But this year, the federal government has granted more than 175 counties across the country the ability to opt-out of the unsheltered portion of the count, including Maricopa County, where unsheltered homelessness has been on the rise for several years. 

“If communities believe that they can safely move forward in conducting a count of their unsheltered homeless population, we’re working with them to do so,” said Eduardo Cabrera, a spokesperson for Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that collects data from the count.  

“If (communities) determined that they can’t safely move forward, then we’re granting them exceptions,” Cabrera said. 

Normally, about 1,000 people, mostly volunteers, will fan out across 9,000 miles of Maricopa County, assigned to their own “grid.” Volunteers will approach people they believe may be experiencing homelssness and ask permission to conduct a survey. 

Survey questions include demographic information, medical history, interactions in the prison and foster care systems and more. The information is punched into a survey app, providing data in real-time. 

In a normal year, the data is then analyzed by the Maricopa Association of Governments, which sends the information to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Data from the Point-In-Time Homeless Count is usually made public in the summer. 

The count isn’t an exact science. It’s generally understood to be an undercount, often referred to as a “snapshot” of homelessness one day out of the year. Data collected from surveys are only as accurate as the person answering them, and includes touchy subjects like history of addiction, abuse and incarceration. 

But the data is still valuable to federal, state and local governments because the survey questions help provide detailed information about unsheltered individuals, helping experts to identify trends which can help steer funding where it needs to go.  

For example, when the survey was updated in 2019 to include pets, surveyors counted 182 animals — including 10 service animals — accompanying their owners on the street. 

While a seemingly minor detail, pets have been identified as a barrier for shelter and permanent housing, as many places do not allow animals. Some unsheltered people would rather remain on the streets than part with their beloved pets. 

Some cities and towns counting their homeless populations on their own

Cities like Surprise, Tempe, Buckeye and Avondale have decided to count their homeless populations on their own.

Those cities will either conduct either the full survey or an observation-only count, meaning they will count people they believe are experiencing homelessness from afar.

The data collected from the count is especially valuable to smaller cities and towns that have less “formal means for getting data” elsewhere, said Seth Dyson of the City of Surprise.

“Our (homeless) population in general is smaller… there’s less risk” in conducting the count, Dyson said.   

Homelessness a worsening problem in Maricopa County even before pandemic

Homelessness is a burgeoning problem in Maricopa County, often attributed to the increasing cost of housing in metro Phoenix. 

According to PIT Count data, overall homelessness in Maricopa County has increased by 72% since 2014. Between 2019 and 2020, it increased about 15%.

The effect that COVID-19 has had on rates of homelessness is somewhat unclear. 

In the early days of the pandemic, studies forecasted a tidal wave of homelessness stemming from unprecedented rates of joblessness and predicted evictions.

It’s unknown how the pandemic has actually affected rates of homelessness. The federal eviction moratorium, which the Biden administration has extended to March 31, may have staved off the worst possible outcome. But without data from the unsheltered count, it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on, said Steve Berg of the D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“It just deprives us of information,” said Berg of the canceled counts. “We have to rely more on anecdotal evidence.” 

Berg said his organization was anticipating changes in this year’s count due to the pandemic, but he said that he still believes that communities will find a way to make up for lost data.

“I have great confidence these systems will continue to do valuable work, it’s just something else they’re up against as a result of the pandemic,” Berg said.

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Madeline Ackley

Madeline Ackley is a journalist student at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication majoring in digital journalism. She is currently the arts and entertainment editor at the Downtown Devil, an independent digital publication run by Arizona State University students. She covers business, arts and local politics.