National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Counting Homeless Youth — Seven Tips to Get It Right!

A group of homeless youths walking on a sidewalk at night.

During the last 10 days of each January, municipalities across the United States participate in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) annual homeless Point-in-Time (PIT) count. The effort is required under the Continuum of Care (CoC) Program. The count takes place on a single night with the goal of estimating how many individuals are living without shelter. That number is one important data point among many in determining the total homeless population of a community — and in turn, the nation.

On the given night, trained PIT volunteers spread out on foot to look for individuals experiencing homelessness and administer a HUD-designed survey. The survey captures general information about each person encountered (such as age, gender, and race/ethnicity), as well as other data points related to health and wellness, history, and past experiences.

The PIT count can be a useful experience for youth-serving agencies, but it may not capture an accurate number of homeless youth, since young people often experience homelessness differently than adults. Below are some of the best practices and tips for your community to consider when planning and implementing a count of young people experiencing homelessness, whether PIT, Youth Count!, or any other similar effort.

Research the issues – Counting homeless youth requires a different approach than counting homeless adults. Count Me — Hidden in Plain Sight: Documenting Homeless Youth Populations can help planners understand some of the complicating factors, including that some unhoused youth do not want to be found because they are fleeing abusive family situations or fear being returned to foster care. 

Use HUD’s Model PIT Count Survey for Youth – HUD provides CoCs with youth-specific interview protocols, complete with questions that address the unique nature of youth homelessness. The survey can gather information about the respondent’s current education enrollment, potential exploitation, and other topics, developed by homeless youth methodology experts.

Follow the protocols of street outreach – In essence, the PIT count resembles a Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Street Outreach Program (SOP), going out to meet homeless people “where they are.” During the 2015 Washington, D.C., PIT count, where the pictures for this article were taken, one SOP worker from Sasha Bruce Youth Work, a FYSB grantee, explained how his work prepared him for the task. “You've got to put their safety first. It’s making sure they see us first. Making sure that it’s very clear that I’m a friendly voice and I’m not trying to cause you harm or hurt. [SOP workers] bring the experience of being able to talk to a young person and create a natural easiness, create a natural relationship where a young person isn’t put on guard.”

Don’t look for youth who “look homeless” – That same SOP leader stressed something that all youth workers (but perhaps not all homeless-adult providers or PIT volunteers) understand: homeless youth don’t often fit the typical “homeless” profile. In fact, they often don’t consider themselves homeless at all. “There are clear indicators of what an adult homeless individual looks like. For a young person, they could be dressed appropriately, you know, very fashion-forward, and still not have a place to go.” If you see a young person during the PIT count, which typically takes place from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., engage them in an open-ended conversation about your work before making any assumptions about their situation.

A volunteer for the D.C. Point In Time count

Involve community partners, including schools – The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) says that schools can help make your city’s PIT count more youth friendly. NCHE’s report on these partnerships explains how schools can help identify places to check for homeless youth, create incentives for youth participation in the count, and recruit volunteers.

Encourage youth themselves to participate – The Urban Institute, in a report, Counting Homeless Youth: Promising Practices from the Youth Count! Initiative, found that youth involvement can improve the PIT and related population counts.

Host a post-count debrief – The entire PIT process, and the youth portion specifically, are a work in progress. The Urban Institute report cited above also recommends that all youth-count efforts should include a debrief with participants and volunteers to discuss the count and ways it can be improved in the future. 

If you have any other advice or words of wisdom for getting an accurate count of homeless youth, please share! Email us at GETRHYi@NCHYF.org