In a usual year, about 100 county staff members and volunteers would spend today preparing to hit the streets of Mecklenburg County to carry out the annual point-in-time count, a census of our neighbors experiencing homelessness in which staff and volunteers gather information through in-person surveys and deliver donated winter weather supplies.
As we all know, however, things have changed since last January. Following recently released guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), county staff will today launch a modified version of the 2021 point-in-time count, known locally as Everybody Counts CLT, in order to carry out the census safely during a still-active COVID-19 pandemic.
A point-in-time count is a mandatory census carried out by around 400 communities across the country, which then report back to HUD in order to help them allocate federal funding. In Mecklenburg County, that funding totals around $5 million in continual care and emergency solution grant dollars.
In mid-December, HUD released guidelines regarding how to carry out a safe point-in-time count, including giving the option to forgo the “unsheltered census” aspect of the count. Using regularly updated data solutions developed by staff over recent years, however, Mecklenburg County will continue with this year’s unsheltered census, which counts anyone who’s experiencing homelessness in an unsheltered setting — those living out on the streets, in an encampment, in a car, or any place unfit for human habitation.
The county has canceled in-person volunteering this year, as the unsheltered census usually involves dozens of volunteers having face-to-face interactions with people experiencing homelessness, so as to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, the county’s Homeless Management Information System data will serve as the primary source for the unsheltered count.
“We’ve got a great data team in Mecklenburg County,” said Courtney LaCaria, housing and homelessness research coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services (MCCSS). “We are really lucky to have good data infrastructure in our community that we have this opportunity to draw from when this kind of thing comes up to be able to connect good data with the community to inform decision-making.”
Over the next two weeks, staff members with the county and organizations with street-outreach teams that serve the unsheltered homeless population will fill in the gaps, traveling the county to count those who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness who may not be included in current data because they aren’t currently engaging with any service organizations.
Despite the new plan put in place, LaCaria pointed out that in-person volunteering offers residents a chance to connect with their neighbors experiencing homeless, often inspiring them to learn more about housing instability in Charlotte and take further action. Those chances won’t come to fruition this year.
“One of the things that I think is important about our point-in-time activity every year is that it serves as a reminder … that every single person matters; behind every data point is a person with a story,” LaCaria said. “So if you’ve ever served as a volunteer with the point-in-time count, you know that experience changes you. It changes you into an advocate for housing. You can’t look back, you can’t go down a different path after that.”
With homelessness and housing instability at the forefront of many Charlotteans’ minds due to COVID-19, the emergence of Tent City near Uptown, and concerns about an oncoming eviction crisis, the county is hoping to leverage the Mecklenburg County point-in-time count to engage residents around those issues, even if in-person volunteer opportunities are out the window.
At the Everybody Counts CLT website, the county offers ways to support organizations that provide emergency shelters and transitional housing, as well as ways for concerned citizens to engage, including how to make calls for additional federal funding or what public meetings to attend. The county even provides access to a tool kit to center discussions with families, friends or colleagues.
According to MCCSS, most recent counts show that around 3,000 people living in Mecklenburg County are currently experiencing homelessness, an increase from the total of 2,782 reported in June. The findings from this year’s point-in-time count will be published in the annual State of Housing Instability and Homelessness Report in September, though a total number will be reported by MCCSS at the end of the week.
And behind each one of those numbers will be a story.
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