Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist
Albert Townsend and another worker survey people experiencing homelessness near the NoMa neighborhood.
Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist
On Wednesday, volunteers throughout D.C. and the region hustled to facilitate the annual point-in-time (PIT) count. The survey, which is mandated by the federal government, aims to count the number of people experiencing homelessness both locally, and throughout the country. But while the survey is typically completed in one or two nights, the results can have a lasting impact in how housing policy is made.
DCist/WAMU followed two groups taking part in Wednesday's PIT Count. One was in Fairfax, Virginia where a hypothermia center was used as a center point to both connect with volunteers and count persons experiencing homelessness who had gathered there. The other was at the Union Station area in D.C. - an area that advocates say has become sort of a safe haven for people experiencing homelessness. There they can gather in a well-lit area, have access to amenities like public bathrooms, a food court, and even an awning for when it rains or snows.
"Counting just for counting's sake doesn't really mean anything," said Christy Respress, the executive director of Pathways to Housing D.C. "Are we actually reducing homelessness? That's our plan as a city, as a region. So if we don't have the data, we don't know if we're making an impact."
According to Respress, the data gathered from the point-in-time count can illustrate where and how people experiencing homelessness are living. It also points to what kind of resources people are asking for, such as mental health services or shelter during hypothermia season.
Albert Townsend, who runs outreach in the Downtown and NoMa districts for Pathways, says the survey helps them make a connection with people in the neighborhoods. It also helps them keep people safe when it gets cold through emergency responses. He says many people's homes were razed during the last snowstorm.
"The experience is definitely a rough experience in wintertime," says Townsend. "We got to figure out how to help them. We got to figure out how to connect them to services and get them just the essential things and make it through today."
Respress also says the data can show how COVID-19 has impacted people experiencing homelessness. Last year, the survey found more than 5,000 people were experiencing homelessness in DC, which was a decrease of 19.9% from 2020. During opening remarks for the PIT count Wednesday night, Mayor Bowser cited DC's response to the pandemic by pushing for emergency housing as one of the reasons for the drop.
"We are certainly invested as a city in doing our part to create affordable housing, but also to transform our homeless services system so that when people are having an emergency that they can go to a safe shelter and be on their way to a permanent home," Mayor Bowser said.
Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist
Mayor Muriel Bowser gives remarks to open the annual Point-in-Time count for people experiencing homelessness.
Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist
Bowser was joined by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, who shared that volunteers in D.C. have been making strides, despite a pandemic that has made it hard for some jurisdictions to participate in the count.
"This city has done it better than most," said Fudge. "We need to figure out what the trends are in homelessness, and we need to let people know that we care enough to figure out what is going on in our communities."
For Temitope Ibijemilusi, the count is about much more than policy and funding allocations. As someone who has been experiencing homelessness on-and-off for the past four years, it's an opportunity to listen to those who are navigating a difficult – sometimes solitary – situation.
"Some people just need some guidance," said Ibijemilusi, who lives around Union Station. "Y'all coming out here to talk to people and hear their story, hear where they're at, that's probably a good thing. Because a lot of people got a lot on their mind and they're trying to get it out."
The official count and analysis is not expected to be available for submission to Congress for a few months, where it will be used for budget decisions around homelessness. However, it is worth noting that the most recent nationwide snapshot with comprehensive analysis has been overdue since 2020.
People in need of shelter can call the 24-hour hotline for Pathways to Housing DC at 1-800-535-7252. The District's Shelter Hotline can also be contacted at (202) 399-7093.
Fairfax County, VA
At Westwood Baptist Church in Springfield, Va., the doors were open. At a table by the entrance, two women took people's temperatures and asked COVID-19 screening questions. Further into the building, socially-distanced sleeping spaces were marked off with tape. In the sanctuary, about thirty unhoused residents warmed up, watched TV, and ate dinner and dessert served to them by church volunteers.
On Wednesday night — in the midst of a weeks-long cold snap — the brick church was one of two hypothermia centers in Fairfax County, providing emergency shelter for people living on the street, in encampments or in the woods in the county to sleep safe from the frigid temperatures.
"It's peaceful. I can pray, I can read my Bible. I just feel more at home," says Jerome Smith. "It's a blessing to be able to come into the House of the Lord for breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Smith wouldn't say where he lives when he's not staying the night at a hypothermia center, but he says the winter has brought "ups and downs" for him.
"I love the snow, I love to see the kids play in the snow," he says. "But these temperatures for the last couple of days, the single digits — it's frightening."
Wednesday also marked the beginning of the two-day point-in-time count, the annual regional census of the homeless population. Case managers with FACETS, the Fairfax nonprofit that works with church volunteers to run the centers from November until April, were also meeting with clients to fill out the census and talk to them about their longer-term needs.
"We're tracking demographics, we're capturing names, we're looking at ethnicity, we're looking at some of the factors that contributed to the homelessness. We're looking at the years of homelessness, veteran [status], domestic violence victims," says Allison Coles, director of communications and development at FACETS. "There's a lot of information that's captured."
The hypothermia centers, FACETS staff say, are a particularly good place to have point-in-time count conversations with people experiencing homelessness — and to try to get people more stable, long-term help, like permanent housing.
During the point-in-time count, advocates in Fairfax — which as a suburban area, generally has a much lower number of residents experiencing homelessness than D.C. but a much larger and more diverse geographic area — have their work cut out for them. Katherine Aarindel, the director for FACETS's support programs for single unhoused people, says her staff of case managers had been out since 7 a.m., visiting people who live on the street, in cars, and in the woods in their assigned piece of the county.
In addition to yielding valuable information about the root causes of homelessness in the D.C. region, Aarindel says the count is a critical reminder to advocates to check their own biases about why people are unhoused.
"When we engage with them, when we talk to them and we recognize that they're human beings — you know, [you realize] it could be anyone," she says. "So it's definitely been an eye-opener."
Socially-distanced spaces are marked out on the floor for guests at the center.
Some people at the hypothermia center, Coles adds, will leave to go to work early in the morning. Others won't arrive until late at night, after their shifts have finished. Smith, for his part, says he's retired.
"I do have income coming in. Everybody here is not poor," he says.
Smith says he began experiencing homelessness on the heels of multiple tragedies in his life a decade ago: his wife got sick and died, and so did his godfather. Someone stole his truck, and he lost his house. Ever since, Smith says his faith has gotten stronger — and gotten him through the hard times.
"I lost everything. It's just been like a downhill spiral," he says. "Well, the Lord spoke to me one day. He said, 'Son, I'm going to give you everything that you lost. Don't worry about it. I got you.'"
Volunteers at the hypothermia center — which was staffed on Wednesday by a team from two churches, Westwood Baptist and Burke Presbyterian — draw on a mixture of faith and highly skilled organization to make the hypothermia program work. About fifty faith communities are involved in the hypothermia center program, which has been running since 2004.
The work has been complicated by the pandemic. Last year, churches couldn't host the centers, and instead FACETS used an empty store in Tysons. This year, FACETS staff are mostly interfacing with the people who come to the centers (which, amid the latest surge, has put additional pressure on the nonprofit to solve for staff shortages when people get sick).
And Aarindel says some people are hesitant to come into the centers and shelters — even when it's bitterly cold — because of the threat of COVID.
"They're a little apprehensive because, coming into a shelter, where maybe they feel as though they were immune to outside, but then coming in and potentially catching COVID," she says.
This year, though, the churches are once again in rotation. Volunteers deep clean them in the morning, often before they host pre-schools during the day. And they hand off information to the next night's and next week's volunteers, down to individual meal preferences.
"I love the idea of community coming together to help others," says Mara Ashby, a volunteer from Burke Presbyterian who's been doing the work for 7 years. "I think it's important to have no judgment and do it because you just want to care for somebody else."
Weekly FACETS Hypothermia Shelter locations in Fairfax County are available here. People seeking help or hoping to volunteer with FACETS can call 703-352-5090, EXT: 1302 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.