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January 7, 2021

ECHO exempted from 2021 Point in Time Count due to COVID-19 concerns


AUSTIN, Texas (Jan. 7, 2021) — Due to health and safety concerns around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) sought and received an exception to the 2021 in-person Point in Time (PIT) Count of unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In lieu of an in-person count, ECHO is using the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) and other data sources to measure homelessness in our community and the impact of COVID-19.

The PIT Count is required by HUD every other year in communities that receive federal funding to address homelessness, and 2021 was slated to be a required year across the country. Due to the pandemic, however, HUD allowed communities to seek exceptions to a standard unsheltered count, and ECHO submitted and received approval for an exception late last year.

The success and accuracy of an unsheltered count is directly linked to the number of volunteers who participate. The 2020 PIT Count relied on 886 individuals, many of them older adults, interacting in person with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. For numerous reasons, people experiencing homelessness are at high risk for COVID-19 complications and death. ECHO staff and governing stakeholders concluded it would be irresponsible at best and negligent at worst to conduct a standard unsheltered count for the following reasons:

  • 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.”

The count of individuals experiencing sheltered homelessness will happen as planned on Jan. 28, 2021, as will the Housing Inventory Count (HIC) that measures available housing opportunities. Instead of the unsheltered count, ECHO’s Research and Evaluation team will use HMIS to estimate the number of people likely to be counted experiencing unsheltered homelessness on the night of the count. We will use this data to estimate homelessness on a single day and will release a report on our findings later this year in much the same way we have in past years. Because we are still calculating and submitting data on sheltered and unsheltered homelessness to HUD, we do not expect this to affect our community’s federal funding in the coming year.

ECHO expects if we were to perform a standard PIT Count this year, we could see an increase in the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in our community. This is due in part to the economic effects of COVID-19 combined with the federal government’s multiple failures to implement a rent relief plan, a uniform eviction moratorium, and an extension of increased unemployment benefits.

“A lot of people are hurting right now, and while we don’t currently have data to show an increase in homelessness in Austin as a result, we expect to start seeing the effects in the coming weeks and months,” said Akram Al-Turk, ECHO’s Research and Evaluation Director. “We can look to other data points, like unemployment and eviction rates, to understand the impact of the pandemic and how many families will continue to suffer without assistance from every level of government.”

Travis County’s unemployment rate was 5.9% in November, more than double the pre-pandemic rate of 2.6%. Worse, employment rates for low-wage workers (those making less than $27,000 a year) plummeted by 31.9% between January and October, according to researchers tracking the recovery. Meanwhile, food insecurity is rising; the Central Texas Food Bank recorded its highest-ever need in November.

Alternative ways to get involved

In an effort to engage our network of dedicated volunteers who make PIT Count successful year after year, ECHO is asking our community to find alternative ways to support the work of our Continuum of Care partners.

To that end, we ask each community member to do the following:

  • Look at this list of options from our community partners, updated throughout January, for ways to get involved and help your neighbors experiencing homelessness this month
  • Choose an option that’s a good fit for you and your family
  • Prepare your donations or other engagement from Jan. 11-28
  • On Jan. 28, drop off your donations at the organization you’re supporting
  • Share your experience and your donation with your own network and encourage your friends and family to do the same

“Our community is incredibly supportive of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and this is a way to provide support in a safe way,” said ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica. “When it comes to contributing your energy and assistance, it doesn’t matter how you choose to support the work of our homeless response system, it only matters that you choose to support it.”

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