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This week communities across the country will participate in an annual event called the Point-in-Time (PIT) Count. Every January, volunteers and staff go out into the cold on a designated night and do a manual count of the individuals and families who are living in shelters or on the street.

Agencies plan for weeks, recruiting and training volunteers, marking  areas most likely to have individuals living on the street, gathering items—such as toiletries, sanitary products, prepackaged food, socks, blankets and more—that can be shared in ‘goodie bags,’ and creating plans for how best to collect information on who exactly is experiencing homelessness in their communities.

The need for data regarding the prevalence of homelessness in our communities is clear and far-reaching. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) facilitates this count and collects data for a national report. Congress and the President utilize this data to make important decisions on federal funding and programming. It informs local needs and serves as an important snapshot for community leaders, media and service providers regarding who is experiencing homelessness.

However, it is just a snapshot. As Michigan participates in the PIT Count this week, it is important to note the other data collection process that occurs year-round. The Michigan Statewide HMIS Project, administered by the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness and used by over 600 agencies in the state, collects extensive data that is featured in this annual report.

So why do both?

Here in Michigan we are fortunate enough to have a sophisticated process through HMIS that gives us large amounts of data on our homeless population. Much of the rest of the country falls behind Michigan in our ability to count and analyze their data. The PIT Count thus becomes the best national tool we have for counting individuals experiencing homelessness on any given night and allows us to report consistent national numbers.

Further, we aren’t simply counting individuals on this night; we’re also counting the number of beds within multiple housing types. This reveals insight into a community’s housing stock and whether or not there are the correct number of beds to meet demand.

Perhaps more importantly, the PIT Count is personal. It requires that dedicated volunteers go out into their communities and interact with individuals experiencing homelessness. For some communities without the financial resources to conduct street outreach, this may be the only time that this engagement can occur. A human connection is created when volunteers can give those ‘goodie bags’ and share information about additional available services. Oftentimes, media are invited to capture the personal stories and experiences of those living on the street.

It can be easy to forget that those who huddle inside blankets, under bridges, and on street corners are part of our community and have their own stories to tell. The PIT Count is just one opportunity to recognize the humanity of those we otherwise neglect. And to do so in January, in the heart of Michigan’s deadly winter, adds an urgency to solving the problem of homelessness and helping those who lack adequate housing.

Gerry Leslie, HMIS Project Director, knows first-hand the value of the PIT Count. “When I began work in homeless services the PIT Count was the activity I participated in on my very first day. It showed that those experiencing homelessness were just like me.”

What is your experience with the annual PIT Count? Do you volunteer? How does your community participate? We want to hear your Michigan stories. Comment below or email Laurel at Lburchfield@mihomeless.org to share.

-By Laurel Burchfield, MCAH Manager of Marketing, Growth and Development. You can contact her at: lburchfield@mihomeless.org.

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