AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Ending Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, is gearing up for its first official census of the homeless population in the Austin and Travis County area in three years. On Saturday, volunteers gathered to make hygiene kits for the people they will encounter during the count, called Point in Time (PIT), which is scheduled for Jan. 28 from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m.
The PIT is an annual nationwide census of people experiencing homelessness. It gives officials insights into trends and gives local groups data to support their advocacy efforts and calls for funding. Travis County does keep an estimate of how many unhoused people are living in the area based on encounters with homelessness services, but the PIT is considered a more accurate measure.
“This really is our primary source of data on who is living unhoused in our area. Because we haven’t done this in-person count since 2020, we don’t have full updated information on that,” said Claire Burrus, a research and evaluation manager at ECHO.
“We will not be surprised by there being an increased number,” she continued. “But that said, we’ll see what we find next week.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers weren’t able to organize in large groups to execute this census. This will be the first PIT count in the area since January 2020; previously, ECHO would facilitate it every other year.
“This is our first opportunity to be able to get an idea of what the distribution of our unhoused neighbors looks like now,” said Angela de Leon, ECHO’s internal operations manager. “The nighttime gives us an opportunity to ensure that we have as accurate of a count as possible. People aren’t moving so much, which helps us eliminate double count.”
The care kits assembled by volunteers had hygienic products, some clothing and snacks. De Leon said the PIT is a great opportunity to provide these products to folks who need them.
ECHO’s goal today was to build up to 3000 care kits. De Leon said they likely would not achieve that goal, but will accept donations until the night of the event.
Because of policy changes over the last few years — such as the camping ban reinstatement passed in May 2021 — ECHO said it could be more challenging to find the areas where unhoused people are staying.
“We try to give individuals as much information as possible about where to look,” De Leon said. “But again, because there have been so many changes due to policies and just the pandemic. We kind of don’t know what we don’t know.”
De Leon said the process doesn’t tend to be the most comfortable experience for people doing the counting and for those being counted. But various local groups that provide services to Travis County’s unhoused have laid the groundwork for the event during the last couple of months.
“You can imagine if someone can be your home in the middle of the night, that wouldn’t be great,” she said. “I don’t know that anybody’s thrilled about it, but also I think people understand the reasoning for it.”
ECHO is still looking for more volunteers to come out the night of Jan. 27. If folks are interested, they can visit Austin ECHO’s website.