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Saturday, May 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Calling for counters: Help wanted for annual homeless survey in Spokane

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 23, 2019

A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. The Spokane City Council once again balked Monday on a proposal to ban devices that emit high-pitched noises to disperse young and homeless people from areas near downtown businesses. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. The Spokane City Council once again balked Monday on a proposal to ban devices that emit high-pitched noises to disperse young and homeless people from areas near downtown businesses. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Everybody counts.

But somebody has to do the counting.

The city of Spokane is soliciting volunteers for the “Everybody Counts Campaign” point-in-time count, the yearly survey of the region’s homeless population mandated by the federal government and used to track community trends in homelessness.

Officials are also pledging to work to better inform the community on exactly how to interpret data compiled during the point-in-time count – often the topic of political debate during this year’s city elections – and its limitations.

Evolving approach

The point-in-time count is a survey that aims to not only provide a census of the homeless population but a window of understanding into how they ended up homeless. This year’s count is scheduled to take place from Jan. 23 to Jan. 30.

In 2018, officials adapted the methodology of the point-in-time count to better reflect the entire countywide region covered by the Continuum of Care, which administers public homeless services. Previously, the survey was concentrated in Spokane’s downtown core, but volunteers now stretch out to areas like Airway Heights.

The benefit of the downtown-focused study was that fewer volunteers were needed while relying mostly on service providers to conduct street outreach. But the new, wider look captures those who may have otherwise been left out.

“We really wanted to ensure that it was representative of our entire region, and that’s the first time that we did a really broad call for volunteers,” said Tija Danzig, senior manager of Community, Housing and Human Services for the city of Spokane.

By bringing on more volunteers, organizers have also been able to add more service sites to the count like food banks and meal sites where homeless people rely on support.

Prior to the 2019 point-in-time count, officials trained nearly 200 people for the count, though not everyone followed through and closer to 100 people actually participated.

Volunteers are provided with a thorough list of various resources available to the homeless, including everything from housing assistance to mental counseling. The goal is to not only accurately count the homeless but use the interaction as a catalyst to connect them to services and even provide tangible assistance like hats and gloves.

This year, officials are including training on trauma-informed interviewing.

“It’s having that empathy and that compassion and helping folks be able to understand their story without the trauma or to be able to help navigate through that trauma,” Danzig said.

The city will also coordinate with counselors for the first time this year, providing volunteers an opportunity to discuss their experiences following the survey.

“It’s a very different experience to actually face folks who have been through that kind of trauma and hear their stories. We wanted to provide anyone that wanted it with some way to process that,” Danzig said.

The point of the count

The point-in-time count is required for any community receiving funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Intended to track trends, the point-in-time data can be useful in following, for example, the city’s progress in reducing homelessness among veterans or women. It can also be used to identify how many of the city’s homeless are living unsheltered versus in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing.

Though the most public-facing, the point-in-time count is not the only data the city has on homelessness. It also completes the federally mandated “longitudinal system analysis,” which compiles similar numbers but which are gathered over the course of an entire year, Danzig said.

For the last year and a half, the city has received nightly reports from each of Spokane’s shelters on their available capacity. Those numbers are legally required in order to enforce laws against camping, but also enable first responders to direct homeless people to a shelter that can accommodate them.

To bolster its public education efforts, the city plans to overhaul its website to make the data on homelessness easier to understand.

“My hope is that we can start to help people understand what the point-in-time count is intended to do, and then point them to some of these other reports that give a different data set – and maybe a more complete one,” Danzig said. “They all have their limitations, and so to define homelessness by the point-in-time count is selling our system short.”

The point-in-time count is a “snapshot” of homelessness in the community, Danzig stressed. It doesn’t account for the episodic nature of homelessness. A person can leave the shelter system – or enter it – just days after the point-in-time count.

Another misconception is that, because the point-in-time count identified 1,309 homeless people in and around Spokane last year, that meant each and every one of them was on the street. But only 315 were unsheltered.

The consequence of an enhanced point-in-time count is that it makes it difficult to compare data from 2019 to that gathered in 2011.

“It’s just not that simple, because the methodology was so drastically different,” Danzig said. “It’s not apples to apples.”

The survey methodology has been consistent since 2018. But two years does not make a trend, Danzig noted.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development allows several options for the count, including a single-night survey and, as Spokane chooses, a more intensive weeklong survey. Interim CHHS Director Tim Sigler also warned against comparing Spokane to cities like Boise, which can have a drastically different system in place for their survey.

“To compare and say Boise’s got this figured out and Spokane doesn’t – it’s not reasonable to compare those two because we don’t even know what their methodology is,” Sigler said.

How to help

Volunteers can register online at spokane.pointintime.info.

New volunteers will undergo a two-hour training on the survey methodology, while returning volunteers will take a one-hour refresher course.

The survey is conducted across multiple locations over the course of two weeks. Ahead of the count, volunteers will select a service location, such as a food bank or a shelter, and a four-hour shift in which to participate.

There is a training for returning volunteers scheduled 4-5 p.m. Jan. 14 from at the Northeast Community Center, and a session for newcomers 3-5 p.m. Jan. 8 at the West Central Community Center.

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