On Wednesday evening, the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition launched its most ambitious effort to date to tally the local unsheltered population.
Last year, 43 volunteers helped the coalition canvass the county for its annual “Point in Time” count, or PIT count, Homeless Housing Programs Coordinator Marjorie Shaffer said. This year, that number swelled to 69, a 60% increase.
The coalition divided them into 23 teams of two to five people. They were given territories outlined on Google Maps, which they could access on their cell phones. Each territory had markers identifying areas where homeless individuals are known to congregate.
Over three shifts — Wednesday night, Thursday morning and Thursday afternoon — they were able to cover almost twice the area as last year, Shaffer said. In all, they covered roughly half of the county’s 954 square miles.
The coalition is continuing and building on the new approach it piloted last year, surveying more locations and picking places and times based on outreach workers’ knowledge of where and when people congregate. Last year, the changes contributed to a nearly fivefold jump in the number of unsheltered people tallied, from 23 to 107.
Similar PIT counts are being undertaken nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development mandates the annual count, and the results are one of the factors used to calculate funding allocations.
In Philadelphia, PIT count volunteers convened at Love Park before starting their rounds, reports ABC 6. Philadelphia’s count dropped from 2020 to 2021, but has been rising since, hitting 4,725 in 2023, the station said.
In Lancaster County, the coalition is expecting a higher overall count, due both to its more intensive efforts and to a general increase in homelessness seen over the past year, but how much higher remains to be seen. Schaffer declined to speculate on a final total.
Besides people sleeping outside, the PIT count includes individuals at emergency shelters and transitional housing. It also counts people at hospitals if they report not having a fixed address.
The data will be forwarded to the Office of the Homelessness Coalition, which will verify it, cross-check to eliminate any duplication and eventually submit it to HUD. The coalition hopes to make the numbers public toward the end of March, the office’s director, Deb Jones, said.
If an individual tells a shelter later this week that he or she was unsheltered on Wednesday night, that counts, Shaffer said. Providers have a total of seven days to make their count for the night as complete and accurate as possible.
The PIT count isn’t just for HUD; it helps the coalition plan, Shaffer and Jones said. It provides critical information on who is homeless, where the issue is concentrated and how well adapted the coalition’s services are to respond.
In 2023, the PIT count recorded 526 total individuals, the highest number in more than a decade. The lowest since then, 321, came in 2017.