Texas cities face difficulties counting their unsheltered homeless population — at a time when their numbers matter most

Nicole Aurit sits by her tent under a highway overpass in downtown Austin last month. Aurit had been working as a manager at a Supercuts before her job shut down due to COVID-19. (Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)
Nicole Aurit sits by her tent under a highway overpass in downtown Austin last month. Aurit had been working as a manager at a Supercuts before her job shut down due to COVID-19. (Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Nicole Aurit came to Austin from San Antonio expecting to live in her van, get a job and eventually find stable housing. She managed to find work as a manager at a Super Cuts, but when the pandemic hit in March, the city suddenly shut down, and she lost her job.

That halted a search for a permanent home. And the pandemic also slowed services for people experiencing homelessness, and donations from people suddenly limiting their contact with others.

“We couldn’t get a meal or get showers,” the 45-year-old said. “Before, people would bring us food and toiletries and all of a sudden, nothing. We wouldn’t shower for weeks, and I was starving.”

Now, Aurit sleeps in a tent under Interstate 35 because her car broke down, and she couldn’t afford to fix it. It’s an experience not unlike the thousands of people in Austin experiencing homelessness. But how many people are homeless and living on the streets during the pandemic will be harder to quantify this year.

That’s because in Austin, like many cities across the nation, a regular January census of people experiencing homelessness who are living outside of the city’s shelters was canceled. Nearly 60% of regions nationwide had requested waivers or exemptions for counts of unsheltered residents because of the pandemic, according to Reuters, and they will now count only people living in homeless shelters.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically requires regions to conduct what’s called “point-in-time” counts every two years to receive federal funding, but the department allowed exceptions this year for the unsheltered count. Although national research shows relatively low rates of infection among people experiencing homelessness, experts say the homeless population are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

During the unsheltered count, hundreds of community members in a region would typically go out and attempt to count and survey every person experiencing homelessness. The process typically includes having people ask a series of questions and input the answers on a mobile app, and the data from the count would be published in a report later in the year.

“The point-in-time count is definitely not 100% accurate,” said Eric Samuels, president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network. "It's not a count of the universe of people experiencing homelessness. There's no way we're going to capture everyone on a one-day count, or even a count over the course of two or three days, … but it has been the best way for us to measure where we are year after year.”

Since this census normally provides cities with data to inform local policies and decision making around homelessness, homeless coalitions across the state had to make a decision this year: potentially risk COVID-19 exposure by holding a modified version of the regular in-person census, or cancel the opportunity to get valuable data about how the pandemic has affected people experiencing homelessness outside of shelters.

Organizers are hoping they’ll still be able to capture a clear picture of the issue to guide the future response despite significant changes to the way the count has been conducted this year.

The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless typically invites more than 400 volunteers in the San Antonio area to do its count. The alliance canceled the in-person count this year, and instead, it held a Street Outreach Day of Appreciation on Jan. 26 to collect donations and show support for outreach workers.

“We always hold our count on one day of the year. We conduct the count in a certain time frame so that there's no duplication as we send out volunteers,” said Katie Vela, the alliance’s executive director. “It wasn't feasible to get consistency in our methodology, and so it didn't make sense for us to conduct a count and then compare it to previous years.”

Homeless coalitions in both Austin and San Antonio will be estimating the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness through data from the Homeless Management Information System, a database of people who are either at risk of becoming homeless or already experiencing homelessness.

“We have looked at the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in that database in 2019 and 2020,” said Akram Al-Turk, the research and evaluation director for Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. “We’ve come up with a way to estimate the unsheltered count, and what we came up with was very close to what the PIT count was in past years. … Because we got very similar numbers, we're going to use HMIS data this year.”

Some regions in Texas decided to still conduct the count in person, but modified their tactics to reduce the spread of the coronavirus while still getting accurate data. Ana Rausch, a vice president of program operations for The Coalition for the Homeless, said the coalition and staff from Houston-based nonprofit The Way Home conducted the count with outreach teams spread out over nearly two weeks in late January.

“Even when the pandemic was first starting back in March and April, when we were starting to really dig into the work of keeping people safe, we were already getting questions about what it's looking like for the homeless population, and we really can't answer that until we go through the homeless count process,” Rausch said.

The count showed that unsheltered homelessness in Austin-Travis County rose by 45% from 2019 to 2020, while Houston reported essentially no difference in the number of people experiencing homelessness who are unsheltered during the same time period. But that data was all obtained before the pandemic.

Since then, cities across Texas have dedicated a significant amount of resources to opening hotels, protective lodges and auxiliary shelters for the homeless, and many are looking for information on how successful those methods were.

Some organizers said the difficulties obtaining data now has made it harder to tell whether homelessness has increased in the pandemic, while others say the impact of COVID-19 may not be that significant on the data. Rausch said spreading out the volunteers over nearly two weeks in the Houston area means that the accuracy of the data should be approximately the same, but there is a concern about people being counted twice by different volunteers.

“We go through a validation period of making sure there aren't duplicates, not only via the command center online that we use for the technology, but we also run the names through HMIS to make sure that the individuals that were interviewed on the streets were not already counted in the shelter,” said Catherine Villarreal, director of communications for the The Coalition for the Homeless.

Since the count is modified this year, Samuels, with the statewide organization, said cities can instead focus on reviewing whether programs are efficiently using their funds to help people experiencing homelessness move into permanent housing and get benefits. He said the day-to-day data collected by local communities may be more valuable this year since the unsheltered PIT count is not happening as usual.

“(The pandemic) is a bit of a setback, but we are collecting data day in and day out,” Samuels said. “People go into our shelters and places where we provide services. So we have data that we can lean on. We just have to lean into that data more and do a better job of sharing that data so we can produce aggregate reports on homelessness across the state.”

Many homeless shelters are not at their usual capacity as they adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and maintain social distancing, which some experts predict has led to more people living on the streets instead of in shelters. The physical count of people experiencing homelessness in shelters won’t be as impacted by the pandemic as the unsheltered count, but organizers said they expect the pandemic may lead to a lower sheltered count than usual this year.

Al-Turk said it is hard to know exactly what the effects of COVID are on people experiencing homelessness. However, as the pandemic continues and eviction moratoriums eventually expire, he is concerned that the economic effects of COVID-19 will lead to more people becoming homeless in the coming months.

“We know that our community has been hit very hard,” said Sarah Duzinski, vice president of quality assurance for Austin ECHO. “We know that people are struggling, and they’re scrambling, and they’re experiencing those first-layer risk factors for homelessness, which are food insecurity, housing insecurity and job loss. ... I think we’ll be bracing ourselves to see increases in homelessness in the coming years.”