The COVID-19 pandemic has forced city leaders to reinvent the Spokane region’s annual count of its unsheltered population.
At the same time that many worry an economic downturn caused by COVID-19 will worsen homelessness, the pandemic has made conducting an in-person tally of the unsheltered potentially dangerous.
Citing the hazards of in-person outreach, the city announced this week that it would not call on volunteers to conduct a census of people living without shelter in its annual Point in Time Count across the region.
“This count is going to be happening … how we do the count is going to be adjusted,” said Cupid Alexander, the city of Spokane’s director of Neighborhoods, Housing, and Human Services.
As in previous years, the Point in Time Count, a requirement for cities receiving federal funding for homeless services, will still rely on shelter staff to survey guests.
But after reviewing updated Housing and Urban Development Guidance and coordinating with the Spokane Regional Health District, the city decided to count people based on data collected by various providers throughout the year.
“The unsheltered count in the traditional methodology – the way we had done it before – didn’t make sense under COVID-19 recommendations,” said Tija Danzig, a program manager with the city’s Community, Housing, and Human Services Department.
City officials expressed confidence in the ability to generate an accurate count despite the lack of an in-person census in 2021, largely due to all-year homeless outreach efforts.
For example, Danzig noted that a team of providers regularly conducts outreach to unsheltered individuals. Street medicine teams seek to provide medical care to people who are without shelter, and meal distribution sites can also be a point of contact with the homeless.
“There are a number of different ways that people are able to get engaged,” Danzig said.
The city, which leads the effort on behalf of the regional Continuum of Care Board, won approval for its 2021 plan from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.
Even those who conduct it acknowledge that the point in time count is an imperfect measure of homelessness in a community, and warn against using it as a tool for year-to-year comparison. Instead, it serves as a best-estimate count of how many people were given in a single night in January.
The data the city collects can help the Continuum of Care Board understand how people are getting engaged with services and what’s being best utilized, Danzig said.
“It’s important for us to have as good data as we can,” Danzig said.
This year, city spokesman Brian Coddington said the city was forced to weigh the benefits of the Point in Time Count with the risks of in-person interaction during a pandemic.
In its exemption request to HUD late last year, the city enumerated the challenges to conducting an in-person count.
Hosting events that could draw unsheltered individuals, as the city has done in previous years’ counts, could create super-spreader events, the city argued.
There is inadequate personal protective equipment for all of the staff and volunteers, the city noted, and it would not be possible to have everyone involved tested for COVID.
“If staff in our key homeless system positions contract COVID it could bring our already taxed system to a halt and increase the public health crisis of COVID,” the request states.
The move was sharply criticized by Maurice Smith, a homeless advocate and member of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, in an email to coalition members this week.
“This approach, supposedly dictated by COVID restrictions, is a terrible idea. It guarantees a serious undercount of Spokane’s homeless population which has significantly grown as a result of the pandemic, but which will now go uncounted,” Smith argued.
Smith noted that the pandemic has not stopped police officers from doing sweeps of homeless camps and issuing tickets for violation of the city’s sit-lie ordinance, which bans sitting or sleeping on downtown sidewalks during the daytime.
In response to the email, Alexander pledged that the unsheltered would be counted.
”As long as the data has been put in by the partners, (the city) team will be on top of it,” Alexander said.