Homelessness 101: What do all the numbers mean?

Jul 18, 2018  |  at 12:55 pm  |  by sbrown

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Data plays an integral part of the day-to-day operations at the Coalition for the Homeless and drives our decision making activities as lead agency to The Way Home. The Coalition also manages the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). HMIS is a database that captures client information over time on the characteristics of and services used by individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Data is entered into HMIS by direct service providers and is used by those same agencies to generate reports about services and number of clients served; the Coalition uses HMIS to produce system wide reports and analysis about our performance as a community.

Because of all of this data collection, there are a lot of different counts and numbers that the Coalition uses and releases – but what do they all mean?

In particular, there are two different counts shown on our website. One of those numbers is the annual Homeless Count & Survey total, which is a “snapshot” of the homeless population in the Houston region on a given night. The other number is an annual number that shows how many people use homeless or homeless-related services over the course of a year. These two counts are very different and are used to tell us unique information.

Homeless Count & Survey

2018 Homeless Count & Survey Total

The annual Homeless Count & Survey is coordinated by the Coalition every January and tells us how many people are experiencing literal homelessness on a single night, whether that is in an emergency shelter or somewhere not meant for human habitation. Hundreds of staff members from partner agencies of The Way Home canvass across Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties, looking for individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness; while emergency shelters submit their information on sheltered individuals through HMIS.

In 2018, the total number of people experiencing literal homelessness on a single night was 4,143 across our three-county geography. We know that this number is not perfect – we might be missing some people in our count, or we could be over-counting. However, we collect our Homeless Count data in the same way, at the same time each year, and allows us to compare the data from year-to-year and look at trends over time. Homeless Count data can answer questions like, “Is our overall homeless population decreasing?” or “Are we still at steady state regarding Veteran homelessness?”

The Annual Count

The larger number on our website is an annual count and shows how many unique individuals access a homeless or related service over the course of a year. In 2017, 37,246 people accessed some type of homeless or homeless-related service according to our HMIS. These services could have been anything from permanent housing and case management to food pantry services or job training.

This does not necessarily mean that all 37,000 people experienced literal homelessness in 2017, though some of them were and were entered in HMIS as receiving street outreach services or emergency shelter stays. Some of those individuals may have received homeless prevention services such as emergency rental assistance. Also, people who are enrolled in Permanent Supportive Housing through The Way Home may receive regular services like case management or healthcare visits for the rest of their lives.

This annual number is really important since it shows us not just literal homelessness, but also how many people might find themselves facing housing or economic uncertainty in a given year. Also, the total number of individuals accessing homeless services increased from 2016 to 2017, and this trend will most likely continue as more programs and services continue to become available in our community.

The Coalition believes in using data to drive our decisions when it comes to solving homelessness in the Houston region. We hope this educational blog post has helped clarify the differences between two of our most well-known counts! Visit the Local Data and Research section of our website for more information.