Why Alaska’s homelessness experts are ambivalent about the point-in-time count

volunteers put together baggies of personal hygiene products and snacks
Volunteers at the office of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness put together care kits on Jan. 30, 2023. The kits, which have snacks and personal hygiene products, were given out during the 2023 point-in-time count. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

In an office conference room in Anchorage on Monday evening, volunteers loaded up 1-gallon Ziploc bags with personal hygiene products and snacks. The spread on the conference table included wet wipes, toothbrushes, socks, fruit and veggie pouches, granola bars, Pringles and Kool-Aid. 

“We’re making care kits for individuals who we’ll encounter during the point-in-time count,” said Meg Zaletel. 

She’s on the Anchorage Assembly, but this was part of her day job as the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. 

Every year or two around this time, teams from social services organizations across the country fan out in their communities with a goal of counting everyone who doesn’t have a home. 

“Individuals we encounter are often unsheltered, so we like to make sure we can meet some basic needs,” Zaletel said. “We do ask some for some information, and so we never want to ask someone for information without offering them something, as well.” 

These point-in-time counts are widely publicized. Look online and you’ll see lots of news stories about it, group selfies of bundled up surveyors and officials posing for photos. The federal government mandates the count, and it’s tied to funding. 

This year’s official count won’t be released for several months. But both Zaletel and her counterpart responsible for the rest of Alaska warn not to read into the count too much. 

“That is probably one of the most unreliable numbers we have in all the data,” Zaletel said. 

The count comes from direct surveys with people encountered in emergency shelters or in other poor living situations – like sleeping in tents or cars or abandoned buildings. People unwilling or unable to do the surveys may also be included. This year, the count is built around where someone slept on a single night: Jan. 30. 

“Point-in-time is not telling the full story,” Zaletel said. 

There are lots of technical definitions and guidelines that impose some consistency, but the teams can’t find everyone. And there are lots of other factors that affect the count from year to year besides the actual number of people experiencing homelessness. 

But it is one way the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development measures service organizations’ effectiveness. 

Brian Wilson is the executive director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. He described the count this way: “We always have to put an asterisk next to it.”

For example, he said, “You can only count people where you have agencies to count people.” 

That means the official count from a lot of small, rural communities is an inaccurate zero. If a community’s count spikes, it may mean outreach improved, rather than homelessness got worse. 

Wilson and Zaletel said there’s far more robust and up-to-date information available to the public and policymakers through HMIS, the homeless management information system. Maintaining it is also a federal mandate. Social service organizations regularly enter data into the system about the people they work with. 

It produces public reports with big picture stats about who’s using homelessness services around the state. The system also confidentially tracks individuals who use these services. Zaletel said to think of it kind of like your medical record that your doctor puts notes in. 

“Where, if there’s a housing opportunity, we can read it in the notes,” she said. “So if we’re encountering that person, we would be like, ‘Hey, we got to get you in touch with so and so. They’ve got a housing opportunity for you.’ The database isn’t just about data – it’s a communication tool, as well.”

The point-in-time count is likely to identify around 2,000 people experiencing homelessness across Alaska. But Wilson said the need is much greater. 

“We know that year over year, if you look at our HMIS data, which is collected all 365 days a year, that over 15,000 people – unique individuals – are accessing some form of homeless services throughout the state,” he said. 

About two-thirds of them are in Anchorage. 

Despite the asterisks and limitations, Wilson and Zaletel, who have both participated in point-in-time counts themselves, said there are benefits from the exercise. It helps flag holes in outreach efforts and is another way to connect with a vulnerable population. 

“It’s a great experience, because you can really, you know, get there and you’re talking to people directly, and getting to know about their situation more,” Wilson said. “One positive thing that does come out of the point-in-time count is we’re learning more about our community and the needs that are within it.”

Chad Stovall, HUD’s field office director for Alaska, said he supports the housing partners on the ground and is open to more discussion about the count.

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at jhsieh@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

Previous articleAnchorage police now carrying overdose-reversing naloxone
Next articleWhen committee devolves to ‘bickering,’ Alaska congresswoman takes her exit