Once a year on a single night in January, hundreds of volunteers have previously worked together to count the number of people experiencing homelessness in Collin and Dallas counties.
The effort is a local leg of the Point in Time count, a federally required annual count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in one night.
Usually, the count aims to answer a variety of questions and take in a lot of data, said David Gruber, senior development and communications director with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.
In 2021, the federal government is looking to answer just one question.
“‘Has homelessness gone up or down?’ That’s it,” Gruber said. “That’s all they want to know.”
The alliance serves as the lead agency for the homeless response system in Dallas and Collin counties, Gruber said.
This year, instead of sending hundreds of volunteers into the community to interact with a vulnerable population, Gruber said the count will be conducted by professional outreach teams composed of a smaller number of people. The count, which usually takes place during one night, will be a 14-day effort that kicks off Feb. 18.
Those surveyed will all be asked where they slept on the night of Feb. 18, Gruber said, and the survey, which usually involves many questions, will be scaled down.
In the face of an anomalous data collection method, Gruber said it’s understood that the results can’t be used as an “apples to apples” comparison with previous or future counts.
“There is always going to be a very big asterisk next to 2021,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the data will be unreliable. Gruber used the example of a science experiment in which one variable is tested and all others must remain constant.
“Well, COVID-19 has thrown a huge monkey wrench into that experiment,” he said, “and so we're just going to kind of treat these numbers a little differently than usual.”
In January of 2020, Collin County reported a total of 569 people experiencing homelessness, a slight increase from the 558 reported in 2019. The report showed 92 unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Plano, 80 in McKinney, five in Allen and three in Frisco.
Gruber said he was reluctant to predict what the numbers might look like in 2021. While a rise in homelessness is expected in the wake of the pandemic, there have also been more resources directed towards the problem, he said.
“It's kind of like, ‘OK, there's more homeless on one side of the scale, but there's more help on the other side of the scale,’” he said. “What ends up being the net result? We don't know.”
The count results will likely be presented at the beginning of May, he said.