AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s annual, federally required count of people experiencing homelessness won’t happen in person this year due to pandemic health and safety concerns. Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) announced in a release Thursday morning that it had sought and received an exception from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to use other data sources to measure homelessness in the Austin area.

Point in Time Count volunteer Andrew Willard speaks with a person experiencing homelessness in Austin. January 2019. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

The Point in Time Count (or PIT count) is used nationwide to offer a snapshot of how many people are experiencing homelessness in a community on any given night.

The count, which happens in January each year, is required by HUD in order for communities to qualify for federal dollars to address homelessness. In Austin, ECHO coordinates the count and will typically work with hundreds of volunteers weeks or months in advance to canvass different areas of the city in the early morning hours for people experiencing homelessness. Last year’s count had 886 volunteers participating and ECHO said many of those individuals were older adults.

ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica speaks to volunteers for the January 2020 Point in Time Count. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

ECHO decided it would be “irresponsible at best and negligent at worst” to conduct an in-person count this year, citing the recent COVID-19 surge in the Austin area and the fact that people experiencing homelessness are at high risk for COVID-19 complications and death. In a release Thursday, ECHO also noted that a lower volunteer turnout due to the present safety guidelines in Austin “would almost certainly lead to an undercount, which is more damaging to our response system than estimating the number of people experiencing homelessness using other datasets.”

Instead of the typical count where volunteers go out looking for people experiencing homelessness, ECHO plans to use the data local service providers have used for years: the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). HMIS is used in Austin to gather numbers about how many people interacted with homeless services throughout the course of a year.

In previous years, someone who may not have been sleeping on the streets during the Point in Time Count but may have needed shelter services later on in the year would be counted in the HMIS numbers. This year, ECHO said it plans to use the HMIS numbers from January 28, 2021, to estimate homelessness on a single day.

Akram Al-Turk, ECHO’s Research and Evaluation Director explained that they looked at the HMIS data from early January 2019 and 2020 and found those numbers were very similar to the PIT count numbers that year.

“We are optimistic that we will have a good estimate this year as well,” Al-Turk said in an interview with KXAN. “Because of the pandemic, because of the economic impacts of the pandemic, we do expect the numbers to go up, we don’t know by how much, but we do expect some increase in homelessness.”

KXAN covered Austin’s Point in Time Count in person during January 2019 and January 2020.

ECHO says if circumstances were different and it were somehow able to safely conduct a normal Point in Time count with volunteers this year, it expects the Austin area would see an increase in the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

Roman Halizew was experiencing homelessness in Austin on the morning of Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count on January 25. Halizew had pitched his tent just west of I-35 near Rainey Street. Changes to Austin ordinances in 2019 allowed Halizew and others to camp in many public places in Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

In ECHO’s view, this increase in unsheltered homelessness will be, “due in part to the economic effects of COVID-19 combined with the federal government’s multiple failures to implement a rent relief plan, a uniform eviction moratorium, and an extension of increased unemployment benefits.”

Sarah Duzinski, ECHO’s Vice
President of Quality Assurance noted that the pandemic is especially dangerous for those experiencing homelessness because many have factors the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has determined to be higher-risk severe COVID-19.

Duzinski explained that people experiencing homelessness often have “tri morbidity”, or the likelihood of facing mental illness, physical health challenges, and substance misuse.

“Because we have a lot of people in our in our homeless population that are not, you know, receiving regular medical care that have protracted and chronic disease, that really puts them in a high risk category for COVID,” she said, adding, “life on the street is as hard as well, so they’re very vulnerable population.”

Without the Point in Time Count as a way to get more than 800 Austinites directly involved with addressing homelessness, ECHO is trying to think outside of the box for people to support efforts to address homelessness in Austin during the pandemic. For those who might have otherwise volunteered with the count, ECHO is asking them to find another way to contribute during the first few weeks of January including making kits, care packages, and donations for people experiencing homelessness in Austin. You can find a full list of suggested ways to help out here.

KXAN will be updating this story as we learn more details about how this change in the Point in Time Count will be carried out this year.