How the city counts its homeless population

How the city counts its homeless population
Carpenter's Shelter (Courtesy photo)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Carpenter’s Shelter volunteers found him living in his car in the parking lot of a West End condominium development.

The man was hesitant to talk when the five volunteers approached him. One of the volunteers started a conversation. Slowly, pieces of the man’s story began to unravel: his name, his veteran status, his age, how long he had been living in the area.

The man was one of the 15 unsheltered individuals documented in the early hours of Jan. 25 as part of the city’s 2018 Point-in-Time Count. Carpenter’s Shelter Deputy Director Mary-Parker Lamm, one of the volunteers that day, said participating in the count gave the nonprofit homeless shelter the opportunity to reach someone it might not have otherwise.

“He’s now on the city’s radar, where he wasn’t before, so we felt quite triumphant,” Lamm said. “… This was so exciting [to find] someone else out there that we weren’t reaching. That, to me, is the whole reason for the count – to get an accurate count and reach out to people.”

The point-in-time count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development for any jurisdiction receiving funding for homeless services, isn’t intended as the be-all-end-all for homeless data – rather, organizers and participants say, it
offers a quick glimpse into the city’s homeless population.

Each year, the city’s Department of Community & Health Services and nonprofits that provide services to Alexandria’s homeless population conduct a two-pronged count. The “sheltered” part of the count includes homeless individuals in shelters, in temporary housing or in transitional housing on the night of Jan. 24, a day adhered to by all regional jurisdictions. The “unsheltered” part of the count takes volunteers to the streets in the early morning hours of Jan. 25.

The group taking the unsheltered count divides the city into five sections: Potomac Yard and Old Town, Masonic Temple and Del Ray, Inova Alexandria, Eisenhower Avenue and the West End.

“We walked the city and we covered it from 5 a.m. to noon and asked clients ‘Where did you sleep last night?’ and ‘Do you mind answering a few questions?’” Stefan Caine, continuum of care lead administrator for the city’s Department of Community &
Health Services, said. 

Caine and his colleagues spent more than two months planning for the count, hosting their first meeting in early November. Assignments are handed out to various teams, depending on the part of the city they serve. Carpenter’s Shelter, a first-time participant in the unsheltered count, took the West End, where its soon-to-be home of two years, Landmark Mall, is located.

“We gave out our game plan early on and then, once the day comes, it’s all hands on deck,” Caine said. “Then it’s a lot of our work, which is on the back end for the analysis.”

This graphic shows the number of sheltered and unsheltered individuals counted in this year’s point-in-time survey. The orange represents homeless children (Graphic by Aleksandra Kochurova)

This year’s count found 226 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals, though the vast majority of them – 211 – were in shelters run by the city or by nonprofits. This year’s count represents an uptick from 2017 when the count found 211 homeless individuals, 18 of those unsheltered.

However, the multi-year trend since 2011 has been a steep decline in both the overall count and the number of unsheltered homeless individuals counted. The overall
total has dropped by almost 50 percent, while the number of unsheltered has declined by almost two-thirds. In 2011, there were 416 homeless individuals counted, including 42

Office of Community Services Director Jessica Lurz attributes the sharp drop in Alexandria’s homeless population since 2011 to identifying those who are without shelter and providing more services to them faster.

She said the Office of Community Services, in addition to many in the nonprofit and faith communities, have effectively partnered to help formerly homeless people transition out of the system. The office now has rapid rehousing dollars at its discretion, for example, a short-term subsidy to get clients off the street and into permanent housing, at which point the client can access city services, with the hope that they’ll be able to get on their feet and take over rent payments on their own.

The point-in-time survey reads like a census, asking for the person’s name, age, gender, race, ethnicity, employment and income level, in addition to his or her history and what subpopulations within the homeless population they’re part of.

All but one subpopulation, which includes substance use disorders, physical disabilities,

This graph shows the change in subgroups over seven years. The dashed lines show the change from 2011 to 2018 and the solid lines show the change from 2015 to 2018 (Graphic by Aleksandra Kochurova)

serious mental illnesses, a history of foster care, limited English proficiency, chronic health conditions and Veteran status, increased in the last year, between 2017 and 2018.
However, only one subgroup population – history of foster care – increased during the seven-year period between 2011 and 2018.

Perhaps ironically, Lurz said the increases between the 2017 and 2018 counts are due to the same accessibility of services.

“While most of the time we want to see the numbers going down, it actually wasn’t a terrible thing to see that we were able to serve more people,” Lurz said. “It means that our change probably gave people easier access.”

Lurz said her team was also happy to see the number of people who were unsheltered decline from 18 to 15 between 2017 and 2018.

“We were happy to see that we have fewer people who are street homeless. Where we saw more people was inside, which means they are connected to case managers and
services,” Lurz said.

Lurz said one of the biggest issues facing Alexandria’s homeless population
comes down to the lack of affordable housing units. The majority of homeless individuals without children surveyed in 2018 – 58 percent – have some income, with 52 percent making between $501 and $1,000 per month. Most who have income, or 54 percent, received income through wages, while 39 percent are on disability.

The majority of homeless adults with children, 55 percent, also reported that they were employed in 2018, with 72 percent of those employed earning $1,001 and above per month. That group earned 81 percent of its income through wages and five percent apiece from disability, retirement and public assistance.

“The stereotype of someone who’s panhandling and unemployed is not really what we see – the reality is that many people just don’t make enough money to afford housing here in our community,” Lurz said.

The count documents the major challenges facing Alexandria’s homeless community.
Of the 226 adults surveyed, 36 had a serious mental illness, 31 had substance use disorders and 26 were discharged from an institution, which could mean a jail, mental health facility, foster care facility, a hospital or a long-term care facility. There are additional challenges beyond a lack of affordable housing and the mental health or health conditions homeless individuals face.

Lurz said the uptick over the last few years in the number of single homeless individuals, versus homeless families, presents a fundraising challenge. This year, the count found only 29 homeless adults with children, in comparison to 142 homeless individuals without children.

Single homeless individuals, Lurz said, traditionally don’t capture the public’s attention or philanthropy to the extent that families do.

“It’s a lot easier to get assistance when you see a child or a family and single individuals sometimes just don’t get the same kind of response from the community about wanting to help,” Lurz said. 

And while the decrease in the homeless individuals counted as part of the poin-tin-time between 2011 and 2018 is encouraging, Lurz said her office isn’t complacent. If anything, she said, the obstacles facing the homeless population in the city are growing
by the year.

“The clients that we have now are really presented with higher barriers and it’s going to take a lot more resources, financial and otherwise, to help people move from homelessness into housing again,” Lurz said. “I think we’re really getting to the point where some of the clients that we’re serving, it’s not easy to fundraise to serve the population.”

Though the barriers facing the city’s homeless population are high, those working
to help are encouraged by making an impact on even one person. Lamm said Carpenter’s
Shelter volunteers were prepared to not find anyone on their early morning canvas.
She said, while it wouldn’t have been a failure if they hadn’t, the possibility of helping one man is a worthwhile experience.

“It was moving to be part of it. It felt good to be out there. … It felt good that if there was someone out there, we found them and could get them connected to services,” Lamm said. “I don’t think on day one he’s going to open up to services. It’ll take a period of time to build a rapport. But now the city is aware of them and they can send those resources there.”