Outreach organizations and volunteers will try to get a handle on how many homeless people there are in Allegheny County tonight by doing something simple: walking the streets and counting them.
"We're never sure what we’re going to find on a typical day," says Jim Withers, founder of Operation Safety Net, an organization that provides health care to the homeless through the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. "It's like a random biopsy."
Known as the "Point-In-Time" survey, the counts are happening nationwide this week. Each state determines the day on which its count will happen.
While tonight's count will attempt to survey those people actually out on the street, the final total will include those who are receiving services, including permanent housing. The count will involve roughly 100 organizations, from soup kitchens to emergency shelters, who will catalog how many people they served over the past few days.
"We try to get a count of the sheltered population and the unsheltered population," says Charles Keenan, administrator for the Bureau of Homeless Services, part of the county's Department of Human Services.
Last January, 3,120 people were served -- up from 2,497 the year before, and 1,903 in 2001. The number of un-sheltered homeless varies widely from one survey to the next. In 2009, for instance, 282 homeless people were counted on the streets. Last year, there were 91.
Keenan says the numbers are increasing because "our system is growing; we have the capacity to serve more people." Aid programs will likely not be able to expand further without renewed federal support, he adds.
The reports also include a range of demographic data including the incidence of mental illness, substance abuse, disability and domestic violence.
It might seem counter-intuitive to search city streets in January, when people are more likely to seek shelter. But winter is also a time when services are in demand.
"We're likely to have people coming in for service, coming in to the day drop-in centers, into the hospitals to access those services -- rather than the summer where they might not go anywhere," Keenan says.
And even though the homeless population is likely under-counted, Keenan says the numbers have crucial political implications.
"Congress needs to know this when they allocate resources," he says. "It helps to drive policy."