Point-in-Time Counts versus Youth Counts

Point-in-Time Counts versus Youth Counts

A Point-in Time Homeless Count are used to measure the extent and nature of homelessness in a community. Some communities have already conducted successive PiT Counts using well-established methodologies. Other communities are just starting out. Encouragingly, a growing number of communities are recognizing the role that PiT Counts play in our efforts to end homelessness in Canada.

“A Point-in-Time (PiT) Count is a strategy to help determine the extent of homelessness in a community on a given night, or at a single point in time. Point-in-Time Counts allow a community to better understand the nature and extent of homelessness and the characteristics of the homeless population. Such counts support better planning, and when done on more than one occasion, allow communities to assess their progress in reducing homelessness.”  

Excerpt from the COH Point-in-Time Count Toolkit

A PiT Count provides an estimate of homelessness in a community within a specified time period, generally 24 hours. A PiT Count is not intended to be a comprehensive research study, nor is it designed to provide the absolute number of individuals experiencing homelessness in a community. Instead, it offers a snapshot of homelessness and when conducted consistently, allows communities to measure their progress in reducing homelessness.

PiT Count Methods vary across communities. Until 2015 – when the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy introduced a coordinated PiT Count methodology – a standard PiT Count methodology did not exist in Canada. Nonetheless, most PiT Counts share common elements.

The Basic Tenets of a PiT Count

Most simply, to conduct a PiT Count you must locate and survey as many individuals experiencing homelessness as possible, in a given time period – usually not more than 24 hours. The Canadian Definition of Homelessness identifies four categories of homelessness: unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally accommodated and at risk of homelessnes. As it is difficult to locate all individuals experiencing homelessness, a traditional PiT Count seeks to enumerate the two most visible forms of homelessness: unsheltered and emergency sheltered homelessness.

1. The Unsheltered Count

  • The unsheltered count, designed to locate and survey individuals staying on the street or in public places unfit for human habitation, is typically administered by a group of volunteers. Over a few hours, volunteers systematically walk through a community and administer a set of screening questions to every person they encounter. If individuals indicate they are without housing, volunteers ask a set of follow-up questions – known as the PiT Count Survey—to better understand the person’s experience of homelessness. Participation in the Survey is voluntary, and volunteers keep a tally of the number of people encountered. 

2. The Sheltered Count

  • The sheltered count is designed to enumerate the number of individuals staying in emergency shelters on the night of the count. At a minimum, shelters provide the number of individuals that stayed in their facility on the night of the count. Often, individuals staying in the shelter also have the option to complete a PiT Count Survey.

The unsheltered and sheltered counts provide two types of information: first, the number of people experiencing unsheltered and emergency sheltered homelessness on a given night; and second, survey data on the demographics and experiences of those experiencing homelessness. It is important to note that not all individuals that are counted as homeless will complete a PiT Count Survey. Thus, the number of individuals counted as homeless and the number of PiT Count Surveys completed will differ. The PiT Count is designed to capture both types of information.

“Counts can significantly increase a community’s ability to take action towards ending homelessness by:

  • Identifying the characteristics of the local population.
  • Increasing capacity to undertake a local needs assessment.
  • Enhancing system planning and program development.
  • Measuring progress towards ending homelessness.
  • Increasing public awareness about homelessness.
  • Enhancing the ability to test the efficacy of programs and interventions aimed at ending homelessness.

- Excerpt from the COH Point-in-Time Count Toolkit

In many ways, the Youth Count methodology is similar to a general PiT Count. The main purpose of Youth Counts is to enumerate youth homelessness in communities. Youth Counts too, utilize many of the same counting methods as a PiT Count. For example, a Youth Count should include efforts to enumerate and survey youth experiencing unsheltered and sheltered homelessness.

However, there are notable differences between a general PiT Count and a Youth Count - for good reason. PiT Counts, as they are traditionally implemented, do not adequately measure the full extent of youth homelessness in a community. To those familiar with PiT Counts, this may not be a surprise. PiT Counts inherently undercount homelessness. They provide us with a best estimate of homelessness. In other words, a useful “snapshot” of the issue at a single point-in-time. 

That said, a PiT Count is especially likely to undercount youth experiencing homelessness. Youth are less likely to use dedicated homelessness services. Further, they are often less visible due to high-levels of transience or survival strategies that leave them hidden, such as couch-surfing. In some instances, youth make deliberate efforts to remain hidden, due to fear or mistrust of authorities such as child protection services and law enforcement. As a result PiT Counts may, understandably, undercount the number youth experiencing homelessness.

The Youth Count methodology focuses on:

In Canada, Youth Counts are relatively new. The Youth Count Toolkit is a summation of what we know to-date. As communities build their capacity to enumerate youth homelessness, develop new and improved Youth Count strategies and share learning with others, our collective knowledge – and this Toolkit – will grow.

As you develop your own youth count methodologies, we encourage you to share questions, feedback and ideas with us on the Canadian Observatory’s Workspace on Homelessness or, by contacting Jesse Donaldson, National Point-in-Time Count Coordinator. 

The Youth Count Toolkit was generously funded and supported by the Laidlaw Foundation.

Laidlaw Foundation logo.