D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and DHS Director Laura Zeilinger interview a homeless woman.
credit: Twitter/@MurielBowser

Approximately 275 volunteers searched 20 D.C. neighborhoods for the annual Point in Time (PIT) homeless count on Jan. 25. Volunteer Jesse Rabinowitz helped canvass the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

Despite his experience working as an advocacy specialist at Miriam’s Kitchen, a Foggy Bottom-based nonprofit that provides meals and other services to chronically homeless people, Rabinowitz was surprised by what constituted shelter for some individuals his group surveyed.

“People are sleeping in places you walk past and wouldn’t be aware of,” he said.

This one-night snapshot of D.C.’s homeless population aids the city government in establishing year-by-year trend data to inform budgeting for housing resources and other necessary solutions, according to Laura Zeilinger, director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services.

“It’s an opportunity to make sure that we acknowledge people, that we are counting them and that we are understanding a little more about folks who experience homelessness,” Zeilinger said while participating in the count.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (CPPH) has conducted the count on behalf of D.C. since 2001 to discover the number of homeless people in the District and demographics of the population.

PIT counts took place across the country. The D.C. count was one of nine searches conducted in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.

The national project is managed by the Department of Housing and Development (HUD) and carried out through Continuums of Care (CoC), community service organizations that receive HUD funding to combat homelessness.

To receive funding, CoC’s must participate in biannual homeless surveys. The CPPH instead conducts the street search every January.

A total of 8,350 homeless people were counted in D.C. during the 2016 count, up from 7,298 in 2015 — a 14.4 percent increase.

Prior to participating in this year’s survey, volunteers congregated at National City Christian Church to be addressed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of city government.

With public attention focused on a new presidential administration, Bowser told volunteers that the city must remain committed to its values, which include ending homelessness.

“Our values are going to be tested,” Bowser said. “They are being tested right now.”

Recent policy improvements regarding homeless services resulted in the allocation of $100 million for affordable housing in the city during fiscal years 2016 and 2017, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee.

“With the right amount of resources and execution, we really know that we can end homelessness in our city,” Bowser said.

Teams were comprised of between 10 and 20 volunteers, depending on the size of the neighborhood. Bowser and Zeilinger helped count homeless people around McPherson Square.

Volunteers undergo training within the two weeks before the event to understand the PIT count’s purpose, learn the most effective interviewing methods and review the questionnaire to ensure accurate data is obtained. Talking to homeless individuals like friends or family is the best way to approach people identified during the count, according to Rabinowitz, who also volunteered in 2015.

Rabinowitz, who searched a park near the White House and streets surrounding The George Washington University’s campus, recalled an unsettling encounter with a man in his 70s who had only been homeless for a few months.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about the adjustment process from being stably housed for 70 years and then leaving your house and being forced to stay on the streets,” Rabinowitz said.

The average age of a chronically homeless individual was 53 as of 2011, with a life expectancy of 64, according to the Corporation for Supportive Housing and Hearth, Inc.

Concluding its search around 1:45 a.m., the Foggy Bottom team counted a total of 72 people. For Rabinowitz and the 12 other volunteers from the Miriam’s Kitchen staff, conducting a homeless search near Foggy Bottom provided them with valuable insight.

“We don’t normally see the neighborhood at 1:30 in the morning,” Rabinowitz said. “It was important for us to see what our clients are going through when we don’t see them in our dining room.”