For more than a decade, the IU Public Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention have worked with local organizations to conduct Marion County’s annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Count. The PIT Count provides a critical glimpse into Indianapolis’ homeless community and serves as a resource for policy makers and leaders to learn about the people who make up this population.
Yet, as with so many things, the 2021 PIT Count was different. In previous years, it was conducted on a single night in January, surveying people who live in both sheltered and unsheltered situations. This year, research teams needed to modify their approach to safely gather the information—both for surveyors and for the people they met.
Teams must follow guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as they conduct their research. This year, they—and many other groups nationwide—applied for COVID-19 exemptions. This exemption allowed them to reduce the number of people administering the survey, spread the survey out over five days rather than one, and use shortened surveys to reduce the interaction time and risk involved.
While these changes were made for safety reasons, they also meant the team could not track the critical issue of chronic homelessness in 2021. The changes also mean that the 2021 PIT Count is not an apples-to-apples comparison to previous years.
But it could provide initial insights into how COVID-19 may have affected those living in sheltered and unsheltered situations.
For example, COVID changed how shelters handled those who needed support during a public health crisis. The city of Indianapolis and other organizations established shelters specifically for those at high risk for COVID-19 or for those who tested posted for COVID-19. However, these noncongregate shelters are temporary and are only expected to stay active as a part of the public health response to the pandemic.
This year’s PIT Count saw the highest number of individuals counted in the past 10 years—sheltered and unsheltered—at 1,928 people. However, the change in methodology likely contributed to the increase. Of those 1,928 people, 257 reported they were U.S. military veterans, an increase from the 221 in 2020.
More people lived in sheltered and unsheltered situations in 2021. Analysts saw a shift in where these people stayed, with a larger percentage in emergency shelters and unsheltered locations than in 2020.
Among those in emergency shelters, 222 people stayed in city-run COVID shelters or hotel rooms paid for by Supportive Services for Veteran Families. Yet this may only represent a portion of people living in COVID-specific situations. Some emergency shelters reported having additional beds to address COVID-19, but they grouped the people using those beds in with their general emergency shelter population.
Nearly 5% of people surveyed identified as Hispanic or Latinx—the largest portion of whom were in emergency shelters. Those identifying as Black or African American continue to be disproportionately represented in Indianapolis’ homeless population at 54%. They also made up the largest percentage of people in shelters. White people made up the largest share of Indianapolis’ unsheltered population.
Gender trends were consistent with previous years. Nearly 68% of Indianapolis’ homeless population identified as male, 32% as female, and less than 1% as transgender. Survey teams are required to follow HUD guidance when it comes to asking about gender. analysts say that may cause an undercount of people who are transgender or gender nonconforming. Those individuals may decide not to disclose their gender identity due to stigma or out of fear for their safety.
While the PIT Count shows those ages 35–61 still make up the largest percentage of the homeless population in Indianapolis, 2021 marked a continued trend in the increase of people older than 62 experiencing homelessness.
There were nine unaccompanied minors in 2021, an increase from the previous year. In addition, there were 122 families with a combined 268 children. All of the 277 children encountered during the survey were sheltered. They accounted for 15% of Indianapolis’ overall homeless population.
However, analysts emphasize that—due to following HUD guidelines—this number may not paint a true picture of homelessness among children in Marion County. The guidelines don’t take into account children or families who are staying with friends or relatives. Instead, the PIT Count policy brief includes separate information on the number of school-age children who are experiencing homelessness, according to federal McKinney-Vento Act reporting.
Analysts noted that changes in both their methodology and shelters’ services have implications for the future.
First, they stress that it is unclear to what degree COVID-19 affected the number of people counted and their experiences because the pandemic also impacted data quality.
Next, the team recommends organizations look at the shift away from transitional housing this year. While the change could be caused by a number of factors, analysts recommend organizations look at whether the number of beds available in transitional housing meets the need in Indianapolis and whether this is the type of intervention people need. They also recommend reviewing eligibility criteria and potential barriers people may face in accessing this service.
Lastly, analysts want to pay special attention to what factors led to increases this year. To do that, they recommend that future research teams maintain a similar, multiday approach to provide a more accurate comparison with 2021 and increase the likelihood of a comprehensive and accurate count.