Counting homeless Texans could be a challenge this year thanks to additional COVID-19 safety measures. Many communities have opted out of participating in this year’s unshelterd Point in Time count, but Lubbock will proceed. The decision could sacrifice important data, but it may protect already marginalized communities.
“There is no data that is more important than the individuals you’re gathering the data on,” said Kyra Henderson, the data coordinator for the Texas Homeless Network.
Henderson helps plan the annual Point in Time Count, an event intended to compile important information like mental health history, where the unsheltered currently live and their race and ethnicity. Even though collecting data is critical to her job, she says the people are her main priority.
“We already know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects certain communities of color,” she said. “Those folks of color are also over-represented by a large margin in our homeless population, particularly black and African American folks.”
According to last year’s PIT count, over a quarter of Lubbock’s homeless are Black. Meanwhile, that demographic makes up only eight percent of Lubbock’s general population. In terms of COVID-19 cases in the area, this group is over-represented as well.
“I think Lubbock’s very similar to what we’ve seen nationally,” said Lubbock’s Public Health Director, Katherine Wells. “There is a disproportionate burden on African Americans or Hispanic populations.”
The need for safety outweighs the data according to Henderson. Over 50 percent of communities nationwide have opted to skip this year’s unsheltered count. Lubbock will proceed with a modified version, using small teams who work closely with people experiencing homelessness. Open Door is one of the organizations helping this year’s count.
A day after Lubbock received 11 inches of snow, a handful of people gather inside the faith-based organization’s community center. Each confined to a six-foot square marked with tape. Together, they watching an alien movie. This is where homeless people can go to find shelter a couple hours out of the day. A man at a table checks people in and takes their temperatures—a protocol that started back in March.
Chad Wheeler is the CEO of Open Door. “We have the most detailed records we’ve ever had of people walking through the doors, but pre-COVID we weren’t doing that.” With that in mind, it’s hard for him to say for certain whether there’s been an increase in people seeking their services.
His team helps those experiencing homelessness find housing. They provide them lockers for their belongings, give out food and hygiene items—among other services. “Our annual count is going to be very different because of COVID,” Wheeler said. “We’ll still count people but there’s a good chance that the information that we get is going to be limited.”
Folks who are familiar with the area’s homeless community will help identify those not living in shelters. Sergeant Steven Bergen is with Lubbock Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team. They’ll assist in identifying people living on the streets, in homes or camps they’re familiar with—in order to help avoid double counting individuals. “My team is really good at finding the people who are harder to count or harder to find so to speak.”
Both the sheltered and unsheltered PIT counts will take place nationwide on January 28.