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The “point in time” count of people living outdoors

A participant asks why the annual survey of Thurston County’s homeless residents is both invasive and inaccurate

I was among the many social workers, state employees and volunteers who approached and questioned our unhoused neighbors in Thurston County during the last week of January.

This annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count is mandated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state of Washington.

The PIT count is a key factor that federal and state governments use to allocate funding to address homelessness – our steadily worsening national crisis affecting well over half a million people. The more people counted in a county, the more money that county receives. Counties then distribute the money to projects and organizations aiding unhoused people.

Citizen analysis of how the government addresses our most pressing issues is vital. Doing so helps us move towards a future where everyone’s basic needs are met. With that in mind, it feels vital to share how the PIT count is both problematic and inaccurate.

Invasive questions

There is an inherently invasive and problematic nature to this undertaking. The PIT is much more than a mere count. Even if it were, that alone could be degrading. Unhoused people are already viewed as subhuman by society at large (if they’re acknowledged at all) and many loathe being boiled down to a number by the state that oppresses them.

Beyond that, the PIT survey captures more than just basic information. It scrutinizes people’s housing history, health condition, personal challenges and needs through a list of 18 questions. It was very uncomfortable to ask such personal questions to people who didn’t know me. Invasive questions like “What circumstances led to your homelessness?” were particularly hard to ask because most circumstances were traumatic experiences like losing a loved one, abuse, addiction, injuries, illnesses, or financial trouble. Asking questions that may have caused these people’s trauma to resurface felt wrong.

“Bad choices” rather than system failure

Since then, I’ve been wondering why these questions are mandated in order to allocate money. It seems to be a way of legitimizing the idea that homelessness is a result of an individual’s bad choices or fortune, rather than a symptom of our unjust systems. Maybe that’s how the government tries to justify denying people their right to housing (thus violating international law) In thinking about where our tax dollars go, I’m reminded that this year the US Department of Defense received $45 Billion more than the White House even requested although it has failed its last five audits in a row. Scrutinizing desperate people because they lack housing while annually throwing billions at a Pentagon that can’t keep track of it shows me where the government’s priorities are.

Inaccurate results

I’ve heard from Thurston County homeless service providers who believe last year’s PIT count was under the true total by almost half (although that total will never be known). If the government wanted a more accurate total, they would allow for the count to be done over a much longer period of time than the mere 7-10 days currently allowed.

The count is also executed in January instead of during a warmer month, which means that only individuals with absolutely no other option for housing are counted. Many people escape the miserably cold January nights by couch surfing or temporarily crashing with friends or family. They and others are not counted even though they too are experiencing homelessness.

Last year, PIT counters missed some of the biggest encampments in the county. People living alone outside of encampments are regularly left out of the count. These are just some of the red flags that lead me to believe our government is intentionally miscounting this extremely vulnerable population. Doing so would allow it to continue acting as if homelessness isn’t the national crisis it is.

We can do better

People being counted don’t deserve to be subject to invasive questioning, especially when it continually fails to result in significant improvements. There’s no secret formula to ending our homelessness crisis. The majority of people captured in the PIT count need the same things in order to obtain permanent housing—housing affordable at modest incomes, rental assistance, and case management to help them access those things. The state knows this and it should not be burdening people with invasive questions just to get confirmation of the same thing year after year.

We must knock down the walls of greed, bureaucracy, and inhumanity trapping our unhoused neighbors in hardship. We have the means to construct walls for permanent housing that people working for modest wages can afford. In the meantime, we can house people inside the walls of the empty buildings that fill our cities. Imagine if a few hundred million dollars of the $816 billion dollar defense budget were reallocated towards those ends. It would save a lot of American lives, and the Pentagon probably wouldn’t even notice.

Steven Marquardt is an Olympia-based educator and organizer.

For more information on Department of Defense budget increases, visit Defense News.

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