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Homeless Point In Time Count, An Exchange

Adam Gaska:

I saw a post about the last Continuum of Care board meeting and the meeting packet. The post I saw was trumpeting how the efforts by all the different agencies involved have been successful at lowering the number of homeless in our county. On the surface, the numbers look good, but I question if they are really that good when they are put into context with other statistics.

At the very end of this year’s report the Point in Time Count numbers are compared to past years numbers.

The PIT count happens late January. Overdose death count data is for that calendar year.

So in January 2021, Mendocino County had 893 homeless individuals. Over the course of 2021, we lost 72 individuals to drug overdose. Beginning in 2022, Mendocino County counted 830 homeless individuals, a decrease of 63. What portion of those 72 lost to overdose were part of the 63 no longer counted as being homeless? Are we actually succeeding in helping people integrate back into society as healthy, housed individuals or are we losing them through attrition? Are we following through from start to finish and tracking that with actual data to gauge our success?

Mark Scaramella: 

The point in time count numbers are themselves suspiciously high and inaccurate. In 2108, Homeless consultant Robert Marbut reported, “The Point-in-Time Count (PITC) data is inflated.” … “The Point-in-Time-Count (PITC) was developed by HUD with the hope of ascertaining the number of families and individuals experiencing homelessness within a community. Unfortunately, for a variety of methodological reasons, PITCs across the USA are often very inaccurate and vary widely in methodological rigor.”

“When PITCs are “incentivized” around the USA, like the giving out of grocery cards in exchange for participation, there is often over counting. In some cases, individuals change their name and information so they can receive another incentive. In other cases, volunteers give out more than one incentive to an individual or pocket the incentive thus inflating the numbers. Additional problems occur when volunteers count vehicles and building structures, and then apply nonscientific multipliers instead of counting actual people. These inflationary multipliers are oftenc based on assumptions and not on rigorous data modeling. When it comes to counting within encampments, the numbers are often highly inflated since “recent activity or presence of individuals” is often counted rather than counting actual observed individuals. Furthermore, because of weather and police activities, people often move between encampment sites which often means an individual’s “activity” ends up being counted multiple times at multiple sites rather than only once at the site where they are actually currently living. Additionally, extreme good or bad weather on the day of the count can also increase or decrease the number of volunteer counters thus affecting the overall efficacy of the count. Weather can also change the patterns of individuals experiencing homelessness. Finally, when the count time is extended past a 24-hour period, individuals are sometimes counted more than once at different locations.

“In order to get a number that accurately reflects reality, it is important to count actual persons during a very short and defined period of time in order to prevent double-counting. It is also important to not use non-scientific multipliers. These counts should then be validated against community meal counts since community meals/feedings can provide great cross-validating data.”

The Continuum of Care people have never addressed this or other findings and recommendations from the Marbut report. 

In his report Mr. Marbut came up with his own numbers which were substantially lower than the Point In Time Count numbers. There’s no way to know how aaccurate the Point in Time Count numbers are. Even on their face a reduction of 63 (without explanation of how the CoC might be connected to that supposed reduction), 63 is only a 7% reduction, and as Mr. Gaska notes, they might include overdose deaths.

However, we don’t doubt the accuracy of the overdose deaths; in fact, that may be somewhat lower than the actual number, and they don’t count the number of Narcan saves most of which probably would have been overdose deaths if not for the fortunate application of the life-saving antidote.

What would be interesting to know might be how many of the 830 (or whatever the number is) homeless people are clients of Redwood Community Services.

Bernie Norvell:

The count is extremely inaccurate and should not be used for anything other than a bad example. I have participated in the PIT for several years. It used to start early in the morning maybe around 5am. The idea was to count people where they sleep as to not duplicate the numbers. Later this was deemed dangerous to the counters so they switched to counting tents and cars along with bodies. Small tents account for one person whether occupied or abandoned. Large tents account for up to three. Small cars account for 1-2 people and campers and rvs again count for 2-4 regardless of how many may be inside.

This years count started much later in the day. In Fort Bragg we counted unhoused on the first day while the Emergency Winter Shelter was open. The sheltered were to be counted another day. So starting later-in the am after the folks in the shelter had to leave their rooms these folks were undoubtedly counted as unsheltered. The next day they were again counted as sheltered.

Having a count is without a doubt important. How else will we be able to gage the issue. Having an accurate count apparently is not. In my opinion it is a bureaucratic tool used to justify funding a program that does not work.

Adam Gaska:

Thanks for that feedback on the PIT count. I’m a numbers person and had wondered about the methodology. I had signed up to help with the count this year to see for myself but backed out after hurting my shoulder two days before. In the report on methodology, they mention they made changes in how they conducted the Point In Time count, including when they started as Bernie Norvell mentions. To get an accurate count, they should stick to the same method as closely as possible year after year. Even if the numbers are not perfectly accurate, the trend should be fairly accurate which is more important than the actual numbers themselves.

Just personal observation in Ukiah is that is has gotten worse in terms of numbers of people over the last few years. Driving and walking around, I start to recognize quite a few of the people. Some seem new to our area having arrived, or become homeless, just in the last year. Some people I recognize as they are people I have known so they are not new to the area but new to being homeless.

2021 was a bad year. I was still volunteering for the Fire Department then. March 2021, there were 30 responses where Narcan was administered within the first three weeks. That doesn’t include the Narcan flash mobs where citizens on the street saw someone in distress, administered Narcan and the person had left before responders arrived. I would think that those working with the homeless population would have a rough idea of how many were lost just by not seeing them coming to receive services, like a hot meal at Plowshares. Yes, it would be a grim statistic to include and somewhat anecdotal but I think it should be included for accuracy because while important, the numbers don’t tell the whole story and as you mention, can be inaccurate. What’s most important is to know the direction we are going.

Mazie Malone:

Unnecessary … Collaborate integrate. Technology…

Every homeless person is receiving some service. Wether it be Redwood Community Services, Buildin Bridges, Plowshares, the Emergency Room, and jail.

The unhoused people with untreated Serious Mental Illness and addiction are the most vulnerable and least likely to be counted and the least likely to get any service except jail. “Jake Kooy” is a prime example! They are on the move a lot!

I can never remember the name of the homeless service program for tracking. Is it HMIS? That needs to be updated and utilized for accurate counting!

Mark Scaramella:

The Marbut Report on Mendo’s implementation of the Homelesss Management Information System:

“Mendocino County’s HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) participation rates are significantly lower than general participation rates within California. The existing HMIS data is thus “thin,” which limits meaningful strategic decision making based on HMIS data. For the most part, HMIS data is currently limited to the Federal requirements and does not provide a rich enough understanding of the “uniquenesses” that exist within Mendocino County. Additionally, the lack of universal quality data allows unvalidated “myths” to become operational “facts,” thus hindering thoughtful strategic decision making. This lack of quality real-time data also prevents the “system” from being integrated and coordinated, and weakens the coordinated entry system. Currently the HMIS system is predominantly being used as a “score-keeper” for Federal compliance, and is not being utilized to coordinate master case management nor is it being used to track individual recovery plans.

”Going forward, HMIS could become much more robust and powerful, and HMIS could move from being a passive score-keeper to being a proactive case management tool within a truly integrated case management system. A high functioning and universally utilized HMIS system could become the e-backbone to a ‘County-wide virtual case management system.’ 

”In order to promote universal agency participation, all funding to any service agency provided by any governmental source and/or from a foundation should become contingent on the service agency being a proactive participant within HMIS. Carrots need to be created to encourage agencies to use HMIS, likewise, there must be financial consequences for not using HMIS.

”Additionally, in order to maximize agency use of HMIS, a system-wide all-agency information release-form should be developed and utilized by all agencies. Simply put, HMIS data entry needs to be in “real-time,” it needs to be universal and it needs to extend well beyond HUD-funded programs in order to facilitate coordination of care across the entire service Continuum of Care (CoC).”

Mendo has lots of information about HMIS and its procedures and forms, but provides no actual data or reports.

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