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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s annual homeless count kicks off this week – here’s why this year’s tally is crucial

Volunteer Emily Thorn gathers information from Ron Wilson for the annual Point In Time Count survey of the homeless population in Spokane, Wed., Jan. 29, 2020, during the Blessings Under the Bridge free meal at 4th Avenue and McClellan Street. The 2022 Point in Time Count in Spokane will start this week.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Daniel Ramos III was hoping the city could lure up to 100 volunteers to participate in this year’s tally of the region’s homeless population.

He got 140.

The cadre of city staffers leading the annual census, including Ramos, are awed by the community’s eagerness to participate.

“To have 140 people in the middle of a pandemic shows really the heart of our community to help our homeless individuals,” said Brian Walker, communications manager for the city’s Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Division.

This year’s annual point-in-time count should show how the picture of homelessness has changed in the Spokane area since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The point-in-time count is a federally mandated census of the homeless population, including both those living on the streets and those staying in shelters.

Throngs of volunteers and social service providers will scour outreach events, encampments and street corners in an effort to track every unhoused person in and around Spokane.

The data compiled during the point -in -time count plays a key role in how the region tracks and understands trends in homelessness, and builds plans for services.

What makes this year’s count especially pivotal is that it will be the first time the count has included unsheltered people since 2020. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, last year’s count was simplified to a basic tally of the number of people currently staying at shelters.

Thus, it’s been more than two years since Spokane received a snapshot of unsheltered homelessness in the community.

The pandemic still is affecting operations. Volunteer training has gone virtual, and the staff and volunteers will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when conducting outreach, Ramos said.

But those measures are a small price to pay for collecting data.

While anecdotes of increases of homelessness abound, the point-in -time count offers a more quantitative and relatively stable methodology to compare year-to-year trends (excluding 2021, of course).

The methodology for the count is strictly prescribed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It typically kicks off in January, but was delayed for a month this year due to the surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The tally of the population staying in shelters – the simpler half of the point-in -time count – will begin Feb. 24.

The unsheltered count will begin the following day and last until March 1, culminating with an all-out effort coinciding with the annual Homeless Connect event at the Spokane Convention Center, which aims to link people who are homeless to social service providers.

Each day of the unsheltered count, volunteers and the city’s partners in homeless outreach will be briefed on areas of focus. Although it takes place over a full week, the objective is to identify people who were homeless on Feb. 24 – thus providing a “snapshot” of homelessness on a single night in Spokane.

Ramos, who leads the city’s Community Management Information System database, said the city and its partners are taking an approach to the unsheltered count that’s as scientific as possible.

“We’re really focused on high-value, high-impact areas to survey,” Ramos said.

People will be asked a variety of questions with varying purposes. Some are explicitly required by HUD, some developed by planning staff at Eastern Washington University, and others were recommended by Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration.

The questions are meant to collect information such as whether a person has any disability, what barriers they face in obtaining shelter, and in what community they last resided before they became unhoused. The survey is voluntary and confidential.

The city isn’t going it alone. It is also relying on community organizations to ensure as many people are counted as possible.

“We have a whole network of former and current providers – some of them still work for different shelters and community organizations, and some just volunteer – and they know encampments and where people gather, so that’s where a lot of our intel comes from,” said Point in Time Count Coordinator Amira Djulovic.

Djulovic herself is one example of the evolution in the city’s approach to the count in recent years. She’s the first person the city has ever hired as a full-time coordinator of the point-in -time count.

While its accuracy has at times become the center of public debate – including in the 2019 mayoral election – the people administering the point-in-time count don’t get mired in such discussions.

“It has its limitations, but if you do it consistently every year … you will see certain trends,” Djulovic said.