Austin (KXAN) — In the chilly early hours of Saturday morning, more than 900 volunteers trekked around Austin, counting those people experiencing homelessness. They were participating in the Point in Time Count, the annual census of homeless populations across the country.

Volunteer Andrew Willard surveys people experiencing homelessness at a tent in Austin near Rainey Street. This survey annual Point in Time Count, a census carried out in communities across the country of people experiencing homelessness. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Local groups coordinate this count to track data about homelessness in their area and to qualify for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In Austin, the count is led by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).

The count comes after a year of policy changes and heated debate related to how Austin is addressing homelessness. But that debate doesn’t seem to have lessened Austinites’ desire to lend a hand in making sure the homeless community is counted as accurately as possible. This year at least 200 more people volunteered for the count than in the year prior.

“We seem to be divided on this issue,” said Matt Mollica, executive director of ECHO, speaking about homelessness generally. But he added, looking out at the church packed with hundreds of volunteers at 3:00 a.m, “when I see all the folks that are out here today, when I see the commitment to help those experiencing homelessness in our community, it doesn’t feel like we’re divided, it feels very united to me.”

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

The volunteers headed out into the darkness, equipped with hygiene kits and snacks to hand out along the way. For the first time in Austin, the Point in Time Count was carried out through a digital survey as opposed to the pen-and-paper surveys of years past. The switch to digital surveys was an effort to streamline information collection and more accurately record the locations where people are living, ECHO leaders explained in the training for the count.

The count is not a random walk around the city searching for people experiencing homelessness. ECHO breaks down the city into different areas based on where they know that people have been in the past, staffing each area with volunteers accordingly. Many team leaders will go out in advance to get an idea of where encampments are.

Volunteers are tasked with approaching each person who appears to be experiencing homelessness and attempting to contact them, whether they are in a tent, in a car, or on the street. If that person is willing, the volunteer will ask a series of questions (How old are you? How long have you been experiencing homelessness?). Volunteers can also mark down that they observed a person sleeping without a shelter, even if that person doesn’t want to take the survey or doesn’t wake up.

The results from the 2020 count are not available yet, ECHO still needs to go through all the data collected Saturday.

The 2019 Point in Time Count found that there were 2,255 people experiencing homelessness in Travis County on a single night. Of those people, 1,169 were sheltered and 1,086 were unsheltered.

Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s Point in Time Count numbers of homeless individuals from 2010-2019. ECHO Graphic.

Over the past ten years, the total number of people experiencing homelessness during Austin’s Point in Time Count has fluctuated between 1,832 and 2,362. The number of unsheltered individuals has fluctuated over that time period between 448 to 1,086, with the highest number of unsheltered homeless recorded in 2019. 

Volunteers talk with a man experiencing homelessness during Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard)

Matt Mollica acknowledged that the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin is likely larger than the 2,255 number from the Point in Time Count.

“We know that it’s more than that number and that more than likely it’s somewhere closer than the number [of people] that we have coordinated assessments for in the system,”  he said.

The number of people who have completed coordinated assessments fluctuates, Mollica noted. ECHO documents from 2018 placed that number at around 7,000 people at the time.

The Point in Time Count has limitations, for example, it does not capture people who may have slipped into and out of homelessness over the course of a year.

But Austin Mayor Steve Adler said while the Point in Time Count process may not capture every single person, it is still important to the Austin area.

“The better we do on this count, the more people that we can find, we accomplish two things,” the mayor said. “One thing we accomplish is that we actually know better, how many people we have experiencing homelessness on our streets on a given night. And we know that the amount of funding that we get, the amount of funding we get sometimes from foundations and the like is dependent in part on the extent of the challenge we have in this city.”

KXAN covered the Point in Time count last year and went with the team Adler was assigned to. At that time, Adler told KXAN he felt the city was at a tipping point, where momentum was growing behind addressing homelessness.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks with girls from Hutto who have collected donations of socks for people experiencing homelessness in Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“I do feel kind of an expectation in the community that something big is going to happen now, and I think the community needs to keep that pressure on to make sure that happens,” Adler said back in that January 2019 interview.

Since then, there has been a dizzying amount of change and discussion related to homelessness in the city.

Austin’s city council voted to repeal a ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in public, faced concerns from police and threats from Texas Governor Greg Abbott for doing so, then partially reinstated some of the old bans on public camping.

With the policy changes, homelessness became more visible in Austin with more people sleeping in tents in public. As encampments have grown, Governor Abbott has directed state agencies to weekly clear out tents and belongings beneath state overpasses in Austin. The city has continued carrying out separate cleanups at homeless encampments once a month.

The city also devoted $62.7 million in the 2020 budget toward preventing and addressing homelessness, a significant increase from years prior. This week, the council approved an additional $612,000 for mental health care, rapid rehousing, and shelter case management.

This recently approved funding is intended to use the Guided Path Program the city started downtown in October as a model to be replicated in other parts of Austin. The city says the Guided Path Program has been successful in getting social services and housing options to people who had been sleeping outside downtown. So far the program has housed 18 people and enrolled 60 people in programs that lead to permanent housing.

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

Austin’s council approved a homeless shelter for South Austin in June, then scrapped that plan in November, beginning a new strategy of purchasing motels to use as homeless shelters.

The city has also activated a new vision for Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless and is on track to effectively end youth homelessness by the end of 2020.

“I tell you, we have moved the needle a lot this year,” Adler said.

“In my 42 years in this city,” he continued, “I can’t remember a time when this city has been more focused on actually dealing with the challenge of homelessness.”