This month, thousands of volunteers are canvassing their communities, block-by-block, as required by law, to count the number of people sleeping on their streets and sidewalks. But several participating Campaign communities are doing much more than that-- they are combining legally mandated “point-in-time” counts of their homeless populations with full-scale Campaign registry week efforts. These communities hope to do more than just count their homeless neighbors-- they want to learn their names, assess their needs, and identify specific services and resources to help them off the streets permanently.
We can’t end homelessness without person-specific data on exactly who is sleeping outside, what they need to end their homelessness, and for what housing and services they are eligible. Over the last three years, more than 50 Campaign communities have gathered this information through registry weeks. Over three consecutive early mornings, volunteers methodically canvass the streets and ask every person they find sleeping outside to complete a Vulnerability Index survey. This information is used to create a by-name and -photo database that can help service providers determine the health and social needs of individual people and the appropriate services and subsidies available to end their homelessness. Most homeless people who are approached by volunteers agree to provide this information and to sign a waiver allowing it to be shared with local service providers.
After participating in a nearby registry week in November of last year, Robyn Andrews, President of the Coalition for the Homeless of Nassau County, FL, decided to replicate the event in her own community during the annual January point-in-time count.
“The point-in-time count is already organized and has to be done anyway,” she says. “We already had the volunteers lined up, so combining it with the Vulnerability Index was a small task in comparison to how much more information we’re going to get out of it.”
Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) currently allows communities to meet their federal point-in-time count requirements through registry weeks. This year alone, 15 communities will do so for the first time and several additional communities will refresh their local registries. As with traditional counts, these communities will end up with overall estimates of how many people are experiencing homelessness on their streets, but unlike traditional counts, they will also end up with by-name and -photograph databases that contain the detailed, person-specific information that communities need to match homeless people to appropriate housing and service resources.
“Before we did a registry week, we didn’t use our point-in-time count information,” says Christine Pazzaglia, Executive Director of HOPE for the Homeless in Shreveport, LA. “It was just something we had to turn in to HUD.”
Today, local organizers have used the data from their registry week to compile pictures and detailed records of 100 of the most vulnerable chronically homeless individuals in their area into a single binder. Outreach worker Ryan Parker now carries the binder with him to various community meetings as a way to dispel myths about the city’s homeless residents and to build support for permanent housing.
Pazzaglia also notes that using the Vulnerability Index has changed the way the community looks at homelessness and has rallied the community behind a shared belief in permanent solutions. Thanks in part to Shreveport’s successes, every Continuum of Care in Louisiana, save one, is using the Vulnerability Index in conjunction with this week’s point-in-time count.
The registry week approach has helped communities like Shreveport and Nassau County mobilize volunteers for multiple days, instead of just one, building community and strengthening a shared investment in ending homelessness. It has also brought several thousand volunteers across the country face to face with their homeless neighbors, exposing them to deeply human stories of suffering and hard times that make homelessness harder to ignore.
In many communities, registry weeks have also helped organizations identify homeless people previously unknown to the social service system and put them squarely on the radar of organizations that can help them into permanent homes. One registry week conducted last year in Santa Clara County, CA found that over 30% of those surveyed had no previous records in the countywide homeless services database. The local campaign team, Housing 1,000, has since found permanent homes for more than 20 of the most vulnerable people surveyed.
Shreveport and Nassau County are not alone in combining their point-in-time counts with registry week efforts. Other communities using the Vulnerability Index during this week’s counts include Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Forsyth, NC; Allentown, PA; and Roanoke, VA.
Andrews expects that trend to continue. “The information gained from conducting the Vulnerability Index along with the point-in-time count is going to make a lot of new believers,” she says. “It just makes sense, and because it makes sense, it was easy to get our community on board.”