This Is What It Looks Like to Try to Count America’s Homeless Population
They go into the streets in search of data. Peeking behind dumpsters, shining flashlights under bridges, rustling a frosted tent to see if anyone was inside. This is what it takes to count the people in America who don’t have a place to live. To get a number, however flawed, that describes the scope of a deeply entrenched problem and the country’s progress toward fixing it.
Last year, the Biden administration laid out a goal to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. The problem increasingly animates local politics, with ambitious programs to build affordable housing getting opposition from homeowners who say they want encampments gone but for the solution to be far from their communities. Across the country, homelessness is a subject in which declarations of urgency outweigh measurable progress.
Officially called the Point-in-Time Count, the annual tally of those who live outside or in homeless shelters takes place in every corner of the country through the last 10 days of January, and over the past dozen years has found 550,000 to 650,000 people experiencing homelessness. The endeavor is far from perfect, advocates note, since it captures no more than a few days and is almost certainly a significant undercount. But it’s a snapshot from which resources flow, and creates a shared understanding of a common problem.
This year, reporters and photographers from The New York Times shadowed the count, using a sampling of four very different communities — warm and cold, big and small, rural and urban — to examine the same problem in vastly different places.
On any given evening, the forces that drive someone to sleep outside or in a shelter are myriad and complex. A long-run erosion in wages. A fraying social safety net. The fact that hard drugs are cheap and mental health care is not. Year after year, the count finds people experiencing homelessness to be disproportionately Black, disproportionately old and disproportionately sick. Members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community are overrepresented as well.
There is one factor — the high cost of housing and difficulty of finding anything affordable — that rises above the rest. The numbers bear this out, explaining why expensive West Coast cities like Los Angeles have long had the nation’s worst homeless problems, why growing cities like Phoenix are now seeing a troubling rise, and why it is seemingly easier to solve homelessness in places like Rockford, Ill., a once-thriving factory town that has lost a lot jobs but where housing remains cheap.
“Housing has become a competition for a scarce resource, and when you have that the people who are most vulnerable are going to lose,” Gregg Colburn, a professor at the University of Washington and a co-author of “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem,” said in an interview.
The 2023 count will provide a crucial understanding of the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the success of government efforts in blunting its effects. Last year’s count showed homelessness was essentially flat from two years ago, a fact that Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, attributed to widespread eviction moratoriums, billions in rental assistance and an expansion of federal housing vouchers that fortified the safety net. The question for this year, Mr. Olivet said, is “whether we were able to flatten the curve and even start pointing downwards.”
Behind each number are tens of thousands of volunteers, outreach workers and public safety officers who spend the wee hours looking for the most destitute members of their community.
Sometimes, people gladly answer questions and thank volunteers for what they are doing, with a hope that accurate figures will bring more funding for housing and services. Other times, they feel violated and gawked at.
“What are you doing?” a man on a bicycle in Los Angeles asked a team of volunteers in day glow vests as they walked past a downtown sidewalk covered in tents.
— Conor Dougherty
Los Angeles, Jan. 25-26
‘Once you enter this whole cycle, you are always on the edge’
By Conor Dougherty
Photographs by Mark Abramson
In the capital of the capital of homelessness, the people who live outside are used to seeing outsiders. This is especially true in Skid Row, a 50-block neighborhood in downtown where some 3,000 people live in the tents, shanties and recreational vehicles that so thoroughly clog the sidewalks that much of the pedestrian traffic is in the streets. So when dozens of volunteers in reflective vests left the Downtown Women’s Center to count on a recent evening, the people they were counting rarely so much as looked up.
“They constantly have visitors, whether it’s proselytizers, outreach teams, people offering them something to eat, people offering them drugs — people doing a homeless count,” said Suzette Shaw, a volunteer who helped with the tally this year. “This community never sleeps.”
Ms. Shaw is a 58-year-old student who lives in the neighborhood and was once homeless herself. She lived in various forms of transitional housing — hotels, shelters — until she found a permanent subsidized unit in 2016, whose rent is partially covered with a Section 8 housing voucher. Joining the count is one way she tries to make sense of a neighborhood whose scenes of ragged fabric and open fires are some of the bleakest pictures America has to offer.
Given that it has nation’s worst homeless problem, Los Angeles’s count requires assembling a small army that spends three days and several thousand hours amassing their figures. This ranges from volunteers like Ms. Shaw who comb sidewalks for a few hours, to officers like Lt. William Kitchin, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who along with a team of deputies and outreach workers spent a recent Wednesday driving a stretch of the Los Angeles River to tally the residents who live under overpasses and along the banks.
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Unlike smaller cities, which often pair the Point-in-Time Count with interviews and outreach, for sensitivity and safety reasons organizers in Los Angeles discourage volunteers from interacting with the people on the streets.
Some walk, some drive, but for the most part it happens briskly and the numbers they come back with are large. According to last year’s count, about 20 percent of the entire nation’s unsheltered population — about 50,000 people — lived in Los Angeles County.
This has left voters despondent: Surveys consistently show housing and homelessness are the biggest concern of California voters, while a recent poll by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute found residents are furious at the city’s inability to make so much as a dent, with many voters saying they feel unsafe and have considered moving because of the homeless problem.
After a campaign last year that focused almost entirely on homelessness, Karen Bass, the city’s new mayor, declared a state of emergency on her first day in office. This gives her office expanded powers to speed the construction of affordable housing by lifting rules that impede it.
“Tonight we’re counting the people on the street, but we also know that it is most important that we prevent new people from falling into homelessness,” the mayor said to a crowd at a kickoff event in the San Fernando Valley. She joined the count shortly after, along with the actor Danny Trejo.
Ms. Bass summed up the central problem for Los Angeles and other high-cost U.S. cities: Even as they spend billions on new housing and expanded services, more people continue to fall into homelessness faster than these programs can help people already on the streets. Nationally, some 901,000 people exited homelessness each year between 2017 and 2020 on average. That figure would be a huge accomplishment, but for one detail: About 909,000 people entered homelessness each year over the same period.
“Once you enter this whole cycle, you are always on the edge,” Ms. Shaw said.
Phoenix, Jan. 25
‘I stayed there till they kicked me out’
By Jack Healy
Photographs by Ariana Drehsler
Daniel Greene never thought he would end up homeless in Phoenix, a city that enticed him from Idaho a decade ago with balmy winters and cheap housing. But when his lease was up for renewal in December, Mr. Greene said his landlord raised the monthly rent on his one-bedroom apartment to $1,400 from $700. Arizona has few restrictions on rent increases. Now, Mr. Greene is sleeping in a park while he tries to scrape together a deposit.
“I would need $4,000,” he said on Tuesday morning, as a volunteer counted Mr. Greene as part of the city’s portion of the annual Point-in-Time Count.
Mr. Greene, 54, is one of thousands of newly homeless people who have been coughed out of the tailpipe of Arizona’s economic engine, casualties of growth that has drawn new factories and hundreds of thousands of new residents, while sending housing costs spiraling.
Advocates say Phoenix’s streets are increasingly filled with people who simply could not afford an increasingly pricey Arizona: Average rent in the Phoenix area has risen by about 70 percent over the past five years, and the number of people in shelters or living on the street has gone up by 60 percent.
“The cost of housing is the biggest thing we see,” said Kenn Weise, the mayor of the suburban city Avondale, Ariz., and chairman of the Maricopa Association of Governments, which runs the Point-in-Time Count.
The path that brought Mr. Greene to a park in downtown Phoenix, repairing a beater bicycle, began, he said, when he fell from a scaffold at his carpentry job a few years ago. Work was impossible after he crushed his leg, but he said he survived on monthly disability checks.
The rent on his apartment near the palms of Encanto Park crept up from $525 to $700 before doubling in December, part of the disappearance of modestly priced rentals around Phoenix. A decade ago, almost 90 percent of apartments around Phoenix rented for $1,000 or less. Now, just 10 percent do.
“I stayed there till they kicked me out,” Mr. Greene said.
He shoved his furniture and most of his clothes into a $100 monthly storage unit and decided to live outside to try to rebuild his finances. A weekly motel might have been safer, but he figured the open air was free. He is camping out with three other men and spends a lot of time scouring roommate websites.
“I’m doing this on my own,” he said.
As the first of nearly 1,000 volunteers crisscrossed downtown Phoenix starting before sunrise on Tuesday morning, they met people sleeping in makeshift tents beside new art spaces and camping out in the shadow of construction cranes.
One volunteer, Katie Gentry, regional homelessness program manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments, walked up to a gas station downtown where people had come to ask for quarters to buy coffee and escape from the chill; she approached them to ask a litany of deeply personal questions with a matter-of-fact cheerfulness.
The Point-in-Time Count is part census, part deeply intimate personal history. Volunteers here ask for people’s name, age and ethnicity, but also whether prison time, drug use or mental illness is a factor in their homelessness. One question asks whether people had ever traded sex for shelter.
Gustavo Martinez, 56, said he lost his job as a concessionaire for spring-training baseball games during the early days of the pandemic, and he lost his subleased apartment a few months later. He has been bouncing from friends’ couches to shelter beds to living on the streets ever since. He said that he earned a little money cleaning up after the downtown Phoenix farmers market, and that he often spent his time marveling at how anyone could afford to live downtown in the new high-rises sprouting up around him.
“Everything is just going up and up and up.”
Cleveland, Mississippi, Jan. 25-27
‘They were born there, raised there, and they have become homeless there’
By Campbell Robertson
Photographs by Desiree Rios
One of Florida McKay’s colleagues had passed on a tip: There was a woman living in a trailer without heat, light or water in Shelby, Miss., a little hamlet surrounded by the soybean and cotton fields north of town. On a cold and gray morning, Ms. McKay and Robert Lukes, who was helping to administer the Point-in-Time Count in the Mississippi Delta, drove past acres of mud-bogged farmland to find her.
“The Delta’s a little different from other areas in terms of homelessness,” said Ms. McKay, the director of homeless services for the Bolivar County Community Action Agency, a nonprofit organization. There are plenty of people in need here — the median household income in Bolivar County is less than half of the nation’s and the poverty rate is roughly triple — but they are scattered across the region, making the Point-in-Time Count a sprawling exercise in detective work.
On a street corner in Shelby, they parked near a blue and white trailer sagging into the grass. A woman opened the tattered door, hugging herself in the cold, and welcomed Ms. McKay and Mr. Lukes inside. Blankets were stapled over the windows and a rusty propane tank squatted at the end of a bed.
Mr. Lukes began the questionnaire: name, age, how long had she been homeless. Vickey Wells, she said, born on Christmas Day, 1971. She had been living in this dark, cold room for most of a year. Asked how long she had been in the community, Ms. Wells seemed puzzled. She grew up down the street. “This is my home,” she said.
Rural areas are different in terms of homelessness and the Delta is perhaps more different still. In this vast expanse of rural Mississippi, one of the poorest regions of the country, there are very few shelters, very few multifamily housing developments and, relative to the rest of the country, fewer places for rent.
It is a landscape of cropland and modest stand-alone homes, where families have lived — or did live — for generations. Some homes have been empty for years, left behind by a Great Migration of Black people out of the Delta that began early last century and has never really stopped.
In contrast to big cities, where those who are homeless are often people who have moved there in search of opportunities, many of the people without a place to stay in the Delta are those who have never left. In some cases they seek shelter in the homes left by those who went elsewhere.
“People in the Delta that are homeless are from the Delta,” said Hannah Maharrey, the director of the Mississippi Balance of State Continuum of Care, a federally funded program to address homelessness. It’s also the organization that Mr. Lukes works for. “They are literally homeless in their hometown. They lived there, they’re from there, their roots are there, they were born there, raised there, and they have become homeless there.”
Some have been kicked out by family or marooned after the death of a parent; some are escaping abuse; some have fallen prey to addiction in a place where the margin for error is virtually nonexistent. Some never left their homes at all, staying as the structures around them decayed and utilities were cut off, becoming homeless without ever moving.
Jobs in the Delta are scarce, government services are limited and the nonprofit infrastructure is thin, Ms. Maharrey said. The burden of helping the desperate falls largely to churches, neighbors and community groups.
The Point-in-Time Count relies on these local ranks and their network of sources — court clerks, gas station attendants, motel owners, police officers, longtime contacts within the homeless community itself. On cold nights, those seeking shelter find sanctuary anywhere they can, in cars, abandoned homes and vacant strip malls. The only way to really know who is staying where is to live in these communities and know the people firsthand.
The fact that the rural homeless population is harder to see is what makes the yearly census so important, Ms. Maharrey said. “When I talk to other communities, they find it difficult to believe that there’s homelessness in rural Mississippi, or that there’s homelessness in rural America,” she said. “The Point-in-Time Count gives us a reference point.”
In Greenwood, Miss., population around 14,000, the team drove into a wooded lot where Donjua Parris, 43, had been living with her partner since the summer. Four years ago, her partner lost his maintenance job at the apartment building where they lived, she said, and when they were evicted, her family wouldn’t take them in. Ms. Lukes ran through the census questions with Ms. Parris, who shivered in the cold, then he asked her where they should go to find others.
“There is a place,” she said, gesturing toward an area on the riverside of a nearby levee, where she said a pregnant woman was living. “She needs help.”
A few minutes later, Mr. Lukes had climbed down the levee and found a campsite abandoned. If the woman had been there, she was gone now.
‘Right now, I don’t got to worry anymore’
By Conor Dougherty
Photographs by Jamie Kelter Davis
Empty bridges, empty alleys, an empty shanty behind a strip mall parking lot. Angie Walker ticked off a list of where people have been known to sleep. Outside, it was in the mid-20s with a light layer of snow upholstered on fences and grass.
“Our hope is that nobody is outside,” said Ms. Walker, who oversees the homeless program for Rockford’s Health and Human Services Department. “We don’t usually get that lucky.”
They did not, but they were close. After a three-hour search in a Chevy Suburban that at times went off-road and on bike paths, Ms. Walker and her team, which included a retired police officer and a member of the Fire Department, found only one person — a shivering man in a tent who clasped his hands as she ran through a list of survey questions — on the night of Rockford’s count.
As Ms. Walker had predicted earlier in the evening, most of the night’s numbers consisted of the three-dozen people who laid on rectangles of padding parceled across a gym floor at Second First Church. On winter nights, the church becomes a warming center, providing a captive audience for Ms. Walker and the dozen others who spent an hour counting bodies and performing surveys after the drive.
Not having to worry anymore: That is the goal of the tens of billions that city, state and federal governments spend each year in their so far futile effort to end homelessness.
Rockford is one of the country’s biggest success stories, having effectively ended the condition for veterans and chronically homeless individuals, or those who have experienced homelessness for at least a year, who have severe addiction problems or live with a disability of some kind.
The road to those accomplishments was a program called “Built for Zero,” a coalition of 105 local governments nationwide whose members commit to reorganizing their social services and gathering monthly data with a goal of drastically reducing their homeless population. (In 2021, Community Solutions, the New York nonprofit that created “Built for Zero,” was awarded a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to expand the program.)
Central to the work is a concept called “functional zero,” or the point at which the number of people going into and out of homelessness is equal each month, and anyone who experiences it isn’t homeless for more than a few weeks. This does not mean no one will ever be seen sleeping on the streets: Community Solutions instead likens its strategy to a hospital that can take care of everyone who shows up, even if the medical staff can’t prevent them from getting sick.
“Before we get to a place where no one ever has to experience homelessness, we need some milestone that shows we have a system that can be responsive,” said Beth Sandor, chief program officer at Community Solutions.
Back at the warming center on the night of the count, Douglas Webb, a 54-year-old Marine Corps veteran, provided an example of good news. The first time Mr. Webb visited the warming center at Second First, he said, was after an outreach worker found him under a mass of blankets in a parking garage. Now he works at the warming center in the winter.
“I was able to pull myself out of it,” he said.
Mr. Webb is part of what is perhaps the most encouraging story in homelessness. Measured by the Point-in-Time Count, homelessness among veterans nationwide has plunged 55 percent since 2010, as the federal government has poured money into housing and support programs for them.
Mr. Webb noted that he paid $620 for a one-bedroom apartment, low by national standards. (Rockford’s rents are about half the national level, according to a rental index compiled by Zillow.) This is a reflection of the city’s economic malaise. In the hours before the count, Ms. Walker gave a brief tour of Rockford, with sights that included an abandoned factory that used to provide good paying jobs, the anchor storefront that used to be a Kmart, the boarded-up school where people sometimes live.
The city of 147,000 is a picture of Rust Belt decline, with problems that are a magnification of the country’s stratifying economy: Over the past several decades, its base of middle-class manufacturing jobs has withered and been replaced by low-wage retail work, creating a cycle of poverty, despair and crime.
As Ms. Walker surveyed a deserted encampment made with tarps and PVC piping, she noted that some of the city’s success in fighting homelessness could be attributed to its decline. In other words, because there’s been so much disinvestment, Rockford’s housing is cheaper and more plentiful than elsewhere. And such is the irony of homelessness: Economically speaking, it’s easier to solve it in places where things are going poorly than where things are going well.