Chicago Counting. Photo Credit: Charmaine Runes
Chicago Counting. Photo Credit: Charmaine Runes

Chicago’s Winter Homeless Count May Be Inaccurate, Critics Charge

Chicago’s annual homeless count provides a “snapshot” of who is sleeping on the street, but critics say it’s inaccurate and can be traumatic.

One of the first things I noticed when I met Ricky Berner were his slippers. They were a soft tan and waffle-knit, with a darker brown strip running along the bottoms and a smiling sloth stitched on the toes. I told him I liked them and asked where he had gotten them. “I don’t know,” he said, adjusting his red beanie to cover his ears. “Somebody dropped them off, I’m sure. We got a lot of people down here who just bring us lots of stuff.”

We were on Lower Wacker Drive, where Ricky has slept for the past six months. He had just finished answering a survey conducted by Homeless Outreach and Prevention staff from Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS). He was one of thousands of Chicagoans DFSS counted this year.

Since 2013, the DFSS has coordinated a Point-in-Time (PIT) count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The counts, which are conducted every January, include a survey that collects demographic and social service data. Typically, DFSS recruits hundreds of volunteers from other city departments, for-profit and nonprofit organizations; colleges and universities; and the general public to conduct the count. The goal of the census is fourfold: to inform service and resource planning, apply for funds to serve unhoused folks, build public awareness of homelessness, and track trends over time. In the 2020 count, DFSS identified 5,390 people experiencing homelessness, two-thirds of whom were staying in shelters the night of the count. The remaining third slept outside: in parks, in airport terminals, in train stations, and on the streets.

On January 25, the day before the 2021 PIT count officially started, Chicago moved into Phase 1b of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout. While Phase 1b includes Chicagoans in homeless shelters, the city has not announced any plans to offer and administer vaccines to unsheltered residents. In an email to the Weekly, a CDPH spokesperson said the Department is working with Heartland Alliance Health to provide services to unsheltered people, and “is actively planning mobile outreach to encampments and other places frequented by people experiencing homelessness to reach this population.” Berner said he tries to learn as much as he can about COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout by doing online research and reading newspapers. “I’m not too sure about the vaccine,” he said firmly. “I want to wait and see, you know, how it works out with other people. I don’t want to take something that might potentially make me sick.”

Concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of press time has killed 4,634 Chicagoans, pushed HUD to loosen its requirements for the annual count, giving rise to a very different methodology and implementation plan on the local level. Instead of relying on cadres of volunteers, DFSS sent out only trained staff from the city and homeless services organizations. Instead of trying to conduct the count in a single overnight shift, DFSS spread their efforts over four days, from January 26 through January 29 during business hours. And—likely because they lacked volunteer support this year—DFSS targeted “particularly concentrated pockets,” where unhoused people are known to gather, rather than canvassing every neighborhood as it has typically done.

In an email to the Weekly, a spokesperson for DFSS said that despite these significant changes, they are confident in the PIT count data they compile. But even in a normal year, the count may not accurately represent the state of homelessness in Chicago. “It’s a literal eyeball count,” said Julie Dworkin, director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). “We don’t really put a lot of stock in [its] accuracy.” Instead, CCH uses the most current U.S. Census data from the American Survey to estimate the number of unhoused Chicagoans for their advocacy efforts. Their latest annual report shows that 76,998 people experienced homelessness over the course of 2018; the PIT count from that same year was 5,450.

Berner said he doesn’t remember ever being part of previous PIT counts. He has slept on Lower Wacker Drive for the past six months and stayed on State Street prior. “We have a tent over there,” he said, pointing across the busy road. “We have it insulated with blankets, and we use heat candles inside for heat.”

With average daily highs of twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit, January is an especially cruel month to be outside. Two days before I met Berner, the National Weather Service in Chicago issued a winter storm warning. Meteorologists predicted an average of six inches of snowfall and wind gusts at thirty to forty miles per hour. Dworkin said DFSS’s practice of conducting the count during the winter is not unintentional. “On a very cold night, you’re going to have fewer people out on the street,” she explained. Inclement weather forces people to go to shelters, where they are “easier to count.”

But many unhoused Chicagoans end up being excluded from the PIT count because when DFSS is conducting it, they aren’t in shelters or on the streets. The count uses “a very narrow definition of homelessness,” Dworkin said. “[It] doesn’t count people that are temporarily staying with others due to financial hardship, which is the primary way that most people experience homelessness, especially families and youth.”

Beyond potential problems with PIT data accuracy, other stakeholders are concerned with the ethics of conducting such a count at all. Dr. Molly Brown, an assistant professor of clinical community psychology at DePaul University who has volunteered for the city’s PIT count twice with her research team, recently wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune about her experience on the other side of the clipboard.

In an interview with the Weekly, Brown emphasized how the count focuses on data collection at the expense of the very people whose lives make those numbers meaningful. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is staying outside—your physical safety and that of your possessions is very precarious, she said. Then a complete stranger approaches in the middle of the night to ask very personal questions about your life. “It really feels like the public is duped into believing that [the PIT count] is a caring process, that that we’re doing this because we care about people,” Brown said. “But this is a true violation of respect for individuals.”

Brown pointed out potentially traumatic questions on previous PIT surveys. “We were asking questions about people’s homelessness history: how many times they’ve been homeless and [the] duration of homelessness,” she said. “We asked about people’s mental health, whether they received or been told they should receive mental health treatment. Same with substance use. Whether they were survivors of domestic violence and whether they’ve been incarcerated. We asked about children, whether they had guardianship over their children or not. Very painful questions.”

The 2021 PIT survey excluded many of those more probing questions, and was only half as long as the survey Brown used when she was a volunteer during the 2019 count. This year, surveyors focused on demographic questions about race, ethnicity, military status, and age, where the respondent spent the night on January 26, and whether a partner or children were with them that night.

DFSS public affairs director Quenjana Adams disagreed with Brown’s contention that DFSS staff were complete strangers to the people they were counting. “The people know them; [outreach staff] already have relationships with the residents,” she said. According to Adams, DFSS staff visit encampments every week, handing out masks and hand sanitizer and offering information and connections to housing services.

Still, Brown said she worries about the “exploitative” nature of the count, especially the possibility that unhoused people might feel pressured to participate in what should be a completely voluntary survey. “There’s certainly a power dynamic, you know, if you’re the person with the clipboard,” she said. “It’s not always easy [for the resident] to say no.”

Berner watched another Lower Wacker resident receive a free flu vaccination from the doctor accompanying DFSS staff—an offer he had politely refused. He told me that he appreciates that people come by, bringing food and extending prayers. “There’s a lot of good people. I mean, it’s real good. It’s real nice.”

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Charmaine Runes is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Computational Analysis and Public Policy program. She last wrote about remote learning and concerns around CPS reopening plans, and the Weekly’s open-source Twitter bot.

 

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