They go into the streets in search of data. Peeking behind dumpsters, shining flashlights under bridges, rustling a frosted tent to see if anyone was inside. This is what it takes to count the people in America who don’t have a place to live. To get a number, however flawed, that describes the scope of a deeply entrenched problem and the country’s progress toward fixing it.
Last year, the Biden administration laid out a goal to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. The problem increasingly animates local politics, with ambitious programs to build affordable housing getting opposition from homeowners who say they want encampments gone but for the solution to be far from their communities. Across the country, homelessness is a subject in which declarations of urgency outweigh measurable progress.
Officially called the Point-in-Time Count, the annual tally of those who live outside or in homeless shelters takes place in every corner of the country through the last 10 days of January, and over the past dozen years has found 550,000 to 650,000 people experiencing homelessness. The endeavor is far from perfect, advocates note, since it captures no more than a few days and is almost certainly a significant undercount. But it’s a snapshot from which resources flow, and creates a shared understanding of a common problem.
This year, reporters and photographers from The New York Times shadowed the count, using a sampling of four very different communities — warm and cold, big and small, rural and urban — to examine the same problem in vastly different places.
On any given evening, the forces that drive someone to sleep outside or in a shelter are myriad and complex. A long-run erosion in wages. A fraying social safety net. The fact that hard drugs are cheap and mental health care is not. Year after year, the count finds people experiencing homelessness to be disproportionately Black, disproportionately old and disproportionately sick. Members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community are overrepresented as well.
There is one factor — the high cost of housing and difficulty of finding anything affordable — that rises above the rest. The numbers bear this out, explaining why expensive West Coast cities like Los Angeles have long had the nation’s worst homeless problems, why growing cities like Phoenix are now seeing a troubling rise, and why it is seemingly easier to solve homelessness in places like Rockford, Ill., a once-thriving factory town that has lost a lot of jobs but where housing remains cheap.
“Housing has become a competition for a scarce resource, and when you have that the people who are most vulnerable are going to lose,” Gregg Colburn, a professor at the University of Washington and a co-author of “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem,” said in an interview.
The 2023 count will provide a crucial understanding of the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the success of government efforts in blunting its effects. Last year’s count — 582,462 — showed homelessness was essentially flat from two years ago, a fact that Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, attributed to widespread eviction moratoriums, billions in rental assistance and an expansion of federal housing vouchers that fortified the safety net. The question for this year, Mr. Olivet said, is “whether we were able to flatten the curve and even start pointing downwards.”
Behind each number are tens of thousands of volunteers, outreach workers and public safety officers who spend the wee hours looking for the most destitute members of their community.
Sometimes, people gladly answer questions and thank volunteers for what they are doing, with a hope that accurate figures will bring more funding for housing and services. Other times, they feel violated and gawked at.
“What are you doing?” a man on a bicycle in Los Angeles asked a team of volunteers in day glow vests as they walked past a downtown sidewalk covered in tents.
— Conor Dougherty