Understanding family homelessness data—beyond the Point-in-Time count

Published: June 25, 2019

Multiple data sources paint a clearer picture of the scale of homelessness in our region.

Annie PennucciBy Annie Pennucci, Director of Research & Evaluation

When we talk about how many people are experiencing homelessness in our communities, the conversation often centers on the Point-in-Time (PIT) count.

Homeless Data Counts GraphicThe federally required PIT count occurs on a single day in January, when volunteers and professionals observe and record the number of people sleeping outside, in shelters, and in transitional housing. The number is used to quantify the scale of the problem in a given community, inform planning and budgeting, and track progress toward ending homelessness.

The strength of the PIT count is its focus on unsheltered homelessness, which isn’t fully captured by other data sources. Obviously, the experience of homelessness is not limited to wintertime, so focusing on this single point in time doesn’t capture the full scope of the problem. Families especially may be overlooked because their experience of homelessness is often less visible. The good news is that communities have other data we should pay more attention to.

Homelessness services are provided year-round and tracked in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) for all publicly funded, and some privately funded, agencies. Communities can and do use HMIS to produce more comprehensive annual estimates. HMIS has known imperfections—such as incomplete data—but data quality is improving, and even a partial data capture reveals a strikingly larger problem.

Homeless Data ComparisonTo illustrate: in 2018, the PIT count1 included nearly 1,000 families experiencing homelessness in three Puget Sound counties (King, Pierce, and Snohomish). The annual unduplicated HMIS count2 of families receiving homelessness services in these counties in 2018 was over 5,000—more than five times higher than the PIT estimate.

And yet we still haven’t counted every family experiencing homelessness, because we’re only counting people who enrolled in homelessness services.

A process called Coordinated Entry (CE) collects data from people experiencing homelessness and refers them to services. These data are typically stored within the HMIS database. The HMIS-only number is limited to those who enroll in particular services such as emergency shelter and rapid rehousing, so adding CE-only records to our estimate gets us closer to the total prevalence of homelessness.

FamilyHomelessness Data HMIS CE ComparisonTo continue the example above: the number of families experiencing homelessness who sought services in the three Puget Sound counties in 2018 was about 7,3003 — nearly seven and a half times larger than the PIT count. Of those families, 30% did not enroll in services in HMIS, either because they ultimately did not need to or there weren’t enough resources available.

We’re still unable to count families experiencing homelessness who are not seeking help from the public system, maybe because they’ve already tried and not gotten access, or have been historically and systematically underserved. But by leveraging HMIS and CE data, we can see that the scope and scale of the homelessness crisis is greater than the PIT count. When it comes to understanding the scale of homelessness in our region, we should take advantage of all data sources at hand—not just the PIT count.

The counties highlighted in this article are already using these data sources to understand and manage the public response to homelessness in their communities:

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the counties. 

1 PIT count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
2 HMIS annual unduplicated count from Building Changes analysis of data from Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties. This count de-duplicates HMIS data to estimate the unique number of families who received homelessness services in 2018.
3 CE annual unduplicated count from Building Changes analysis of data from Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties. This count de-duplicates CE and HMIS records to estimate the unique number of families who interacted with the homeless system through Coordinated Entry and/or enrollment in HMIS services in 2018.

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