AUSTIN, Texas — We're only one week into the new year and yet another event has been canceled due to COVID-19. The 2021 Point in Time Count has been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. This event helps track and report data on Austin's homeless population. It is required every other year in communities that receive federal funding to address homelessness.
In years past, hundreds of volunteers with Austin's Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) would fan out across the city to identify people living on the streets, in the woods, under bridges, in cars, and in tents. Instead of the count in-person, ECHO is using the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) and other data to measure the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Austin area.
Has Austin's homeless population grown since the start of the pandemic? In the 2020 homeless count, more than 880 people interacted in-person with people experiencing homelessness. And because people experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk for COVID-19, ECHO said stakeholders decided it would be irresponsible to conduct a standard count for the following reasons:
The high case count in Texas, along with rising cases in Austin-Travis County that recently triggered Stage 5 safety guidelines in Austin
People experiencing homelessness are at high risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19; combined with a lack of contact tracers in Texas, an infection resulting from an in-person count would be dangerous
A lack of health insurance in Austin/Travis County limits the ability of our community to access testing and/or treatment
An in-person count would pull resources, within ECHO and among direct service providers, away from the COVID-19 emergency response
A lower volunteer turnout resulting from safety guidelines would almost certainly lead to an undercount, which is more damaging to our response system than estimating the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness using other datasets
“We have a responsibility to our neighbors experiencing homelessness, as well as to our staff, volunteers, and community, not to engage in activities that increase the risk of spreading the virus,” said Sarah Duzinski, ECHO’s vice president of quality assurance. “Either we jeopardize the health of the very people we are trying to serve and hundreds of staff and volunteers or try to hold a scaled-back operation that would likely lead to an undercount; neither of those outcomes serves the best interests of our community. The PIT Count is a valuable resource to understand trends year to year, but ultimately we feel the risks this year far outweigh the benefits to our community.”
WATCH: Homeless population growing in North Austin amid pandemic Author: Rebecca Flores
Published: 11:14 AM CST January 7, 2021