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Austin's in-person census of people experiencing homelessness is canceled again

Gladys Lopez (center) interviews James Harrison Jennings (left) as Leigh Miller (right) records his answers on an app during Austin's annual point-in-time count in 2020.
Julia Reihs
Gladys Lopez (center) interviews James Harrison Jennings as Leigh Miller records his answers on an app during Austin's annual point-in-time count in 2020.

Austin's annual count of the homeless population has been disrupted by the pandemic again. The 2022 census will instead tally the number of requests for housing and medical services to estimate the number of people living outdoors and in shelters, as was done last year.

The so-called point-in-time count is required by cities and counties in order to receive federal money to combat homelessness. The census relies on hundreds of volunteers who survey Travis County to count the number of people sleeping outside on a single night in January. Nearly 900 volunteers took part in the last in-person count in January 2020.

News of the in-person count's cancellation was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) manages the count. ECHO's leadership board voted against an in-person count, opting instead to tally requests for housing and medical and other services from Austinites experiencing homelessness through the Homeless Management Information System, a shared database for service providers.

Sarah Duzinski, ECHO's vice president of quality assurance, told KUT that using this methodology is arguably more accurate than an in-person survey.

"The point-in-time count is a known undercount. That is one of the largest limitations of point-in-time counts across the country. There's cited, peer-reviewed studies that say that it's, at least, a 40% undercount," she said. "In our findings, when we compared the two, we found that our ... snapshot was able to capture between 44 and 71% more individuals."

The downside to the method, Duzinski said, is that it doesn't allow for volunteers to come across folks who haven't sought services.

Last year's snapshot found that 3,160 people were homeless in Austin in 2021. Seventy percent of the estimated homeless population was living outdoors.

Using data from the HMIS count, ECHO established a dashboard that measures homelessness in Austin, as well as transfers to housing and shelter. Because it's dependent on service providers to input information, the dashboard does have a lag, however. The latest update from November puts Austin's population of people experiencing homelessness at 3,263.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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