We Must All Be Part of the “No Wrong Door” Approach: Lessons from the 2017 Point-in-Time Count

February 14, 2017

As a Program Specialist supporting the National Initiatives Team at USICH, analyzing Point-in-Time (PIT) Count data has become an almost daily part of my work. So much so, that it can become easy to forget that there are actual people — actual lives — behind the numbers.

When I participated in my first PIT count in Washington, DC last month, I knew roughly what to expect, but I have to admit that I was more than a little nervous as I walked in to meet up with my team at 8:00 p.m. the night of the count. After some introductions and opening remarks, my team divided up our geography and set out to begin our count.

As my partner and I canvassed the streets of Bloomingdale in Northwest DC, I couldn’t help but feel a little silly with my clipboard in hand and backpack in tow, like a grassroots campaigner ready to knock at a voter’s door. There is something very awkward about intruding on someone’s space — someone who may be ignored by passersby literally hundreds of times a day — to ask personal questions while trying to explain how the information collected will ultimately benefit them by improving service delivery.

Yet as we interviewed more people over the course of the four-hour count, something became very clear. Even those who were initially resistant to completing the survey seemed glad just to be acknowledged, to have the opportunity to tell at least part of their story, to be heard for once. I also reminded myself that though this data provides just a snapshot of the extent of homelessness in our country at a given point in time, it is critically important for helping us understand both the progress we are making, but also the work still ahead.

Based upon our interviews, a few things stood out to me:

1) The connection between incarceration and homelessness.

One of the more sensitive questions on the survey pertains to whether the respondent has ever lived in an institutional setting, such as a jail, hospital, or treatment facility.

Of the 10 or so people my partner and I interviewed that night, at least half reported that they had been incarcerated at some point in their lives. For most, it had placed serious limitations on their ability to gain employment. Among those who indicated a history of incarceration, at least two reported that they had been experiencing homelessness for longer than 15 years.

2) Connections to employment and mainstream benefits are important.

At least half the people we spoke to the night of the count reported that the primary reason for their homelessness was not having a job or not being able to get a job. Many reported they were receiving food stamps, but no other sources of supplemental income. One respondent told us he was having a hard time securing his social security card, and could not access any benefits at all.

3) The importance of coordinated entry.

Ensuring people know how to get help and where to start could make the difference in moving the remaining folks off the street and into permanent housing. Washington, DC has a well-developed coordinated entry process , which helps people access an array of housing interventions and services through a single coordinated assessment. This “no wrong door” approach ensures that getting help is not a matter of talking to the right agency or case manager at the right time. After interviewing the man who was unable to obtain his social security card, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a simple visit to one of the city’s drop-in centers could be the beginning of his path to housing.   In order to take advantage of the wide array of services and supports available, people must first know they exist, and be able to access them easily.

Reflecting back on that night, it struck me how all of us — community partners, state and local governments, law enforcement, and mainstream programs — must be a part of the solution to homelessness. And perhaps most importantly, we — as members of the community — can educate ourselves about the resources that are available, so that we all become part of the “no wrong door” approach to ending the homelessness of our neighbors.

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