The Importance of Knowing Their Names

By Adam Gibbs, January 21, 2015 - 11:06am

This may sound simple, but surprisingly, many communities still don’t know the names of everyone living on their streets. This knowledge deficit matters for a very simple reason - it is nearly impossible to help someone escape homelessness if you don’t know who they are and what kind of help they need.

This week, during the 2015 federal Point-in-Time (PIT) Count, volunteers from each of the country’s 414 Continuums of Care (CoCs) will hit area streets and shelters to assess the number of residents experiencing homelessness within the community. This annual count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people is a federal requirement, but each community plans, coordinates, and carries it out locally during the last 10 days in January.

The PIT Count is an important event that provides nationwide figures on the number of people experiencing homelessness each year - figures that are crucial for allocating the federal housing resources upon which communities depend. PIT data isn’t without its limitations, however - the anonymity of simply counting makes it difficult to know who has been counted or what it might take to help them.

This year, many of the 71 communities launching their local participation in Zero:2016 are taking the PIT Count a step further than usual. In addition to counting the number of people experiencing homelessness on their streets and in their shelters, these communities will use a standard set of questions, known as a Common Assessment Tool (CAT), to learn their homeless neighbors’ names, document their stories, and assess their most urgent needs.

That may sound simple, but surprisingly, many communities still don’t know the names of everyone living on their streets. This knowledge deficit matters for a very simple reason - it is nearly impossible to help someone escape homelessness if you don’t know who they are and what kind of help they need.

Zero: 2016 communities will develop by-name lists by walking block by block in the early hours of the morning to find and identify every person sleeping outside. They will then use those lists to match people to the best available housing assistance to fit their individual circumstances, prioritizing the most vulnerable people for the first available help.

By-name data also offer communities a big picture strategy advantage by revealing exactly how many veterans and chronically homeless people are sleeping in shelters and on local streets. Zero: 2016 communities will use this information to calculate the total number of individuals they must connect to housing on a monthly basis in order to end veteran and chronic homelessness on the federal timetable - December 31, 2015 for homeless veterans and December 31, 2016 for chronically homeless Americans.

“By creating a constantly updated, by-name list of each person experiencing homelessness, Zero: 2016 communities are taking one of the most critical steps toward ending chronic and veteran homelessness,” said Zero: 2016 Director Beth Sandor. “It is no longer enough to count your homeless neighbors anonymously once a year. You simply can’t solve the problem without knowing the names and unique needs of each and every person experiencing homelessness within a community.”

Some of the communities participating in Zero: 2016 conducted their first by-name street surveys during their participation in our 100,000 Homes Campaign. Others will use this experience to create their lists for the first time. But whether they’re updating existing registries or starting from scratch, all participating communities are sure to benefit from knowing not only how many people in the community are experiencing homelessness, but also who they are and what each individual needs to access housing. This level of detail, along with the drive to create meaningful change for our most vulnerable neighbors, will guide communities over the next two years as they set their sights on zero. 

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