Point in Time (PIT) captures a brief moment within a complicated existence. The annual event provides statistical documentation of a single night for the homeless population around the country. On Jan. 21, humanitarian workers, volunteers and other community members worked tirelessly to survey homeless people throughout the Flagstaff area.
Lanndhese Talice, director of housing for Flagstaff Shelter Services (FSS), explained how a large portion of PIT research is conducted in shelters and public spaces. For example, hundreds of homeless people have completed surveys at FSS and Catholic Charities, along with locations such as the Flagstaff Public Library, Joe C. Montoya Community and Senior Center, and Sunshine Rescue Mission.
Another component of PIT is outreach. Last week, from Jan. 21 to Jan. 26, numerous volunteers explored Flagstaff, searching locations around downtown, parks and trails to survey a greater number of people. Additionally, Catholic Charities’ Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness team conducted remote fieldwork over the weekend to assess the surrounding areas of homeless populations.
This data collection examined a number of characteristics including backgrounds, demographics and sleeping situations, but it also provided the chance to converse and empathize. Although PIT is a statistical study, it showcases communal outreach. Furthermore, volunteers around Flagstaff offered various incentives, including hygiene packs and snack bundles, to the homeless individuals who participated.
Despite PIT’s annual efforts and collection, it is still an unreasonable challenge. Michael Van Ness, a part-time sociology professor, explained that homelessness is a subjective status rather than a concrete standing. Van Ness was heavily involved with Flagstaff shelters for years, and although he supports the volunteers and communities affiliated with PIT, he said the accompanying methodologies don’t always provide an accurate representation.
An Arizona Daily Sun article from 2018 referenced PIT’s overall measure of 415 homeless people in Coconino County. Van Ness, however, estimated that the demographic is comprised of 900 — more than double those surveyed.
Van Ness elaborated that the PIT count invariably misses hundreds of people who are staying with friends or family, temporarily renting motels or bouncing between homes. Additionally, because all surveying occurs for the night of Jan. 21, these missed numbers are often magnified by inclement winter weather.
“It’s hard to define what someone’s status is,” Van Ness said.
After addressing PIT’s weaknesses, Van Ness explained that volunteers and funding are integral to the program’s advancement. Although it is difficult to survey the entire homeless population, more people and an increased budget could certainly help.
Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of FSS, echoed Van Ness’s belief that PIT would benefit from more participants and financing.
“The PIT count is a way for our community to truly understand who is in need in real time,” Altenbaugh said. “It absolutely helps us make a case to funders, both private and public, that we have data to show who and how many people are in a crisis in our community ... We can always use more people to make the picture as robust as possible.”
PIT data also demonstrate an inherent diversity within the previous picture. Van Ness, who has bonded with numerous homeless people throughout the years, detailed how his encounters stretch over multiple different backgrounds.
For example, Van Ness has interacted with veterans, domestic violence victims, stranded travelers, undiagnosed mental health patients and others. He added that, oftentimes, society relegates the homeless demographic into an inaccurate category: lazy and hostile citizens. In contrast, Van Ness’ experiences refute this prejudice.
Van Ness explained the homeless population also builds strong and supportive communities. Over the years, he has witnessed homeless people share money, food and stories, among other tips and tricks. This caring connectivity also counteracts various prejudices, which have been pervasive for decades.
Historically, the stereotypes about homelessness increased in the ’80s and ’90s, during the era of deinstitutionalization. According to the website the balance, between 1955 and 1994, approximately 487,000 mental health patients were discharged from state hospitals, despite their ongoing conditions. Another 2.2 million people did not receive any psychiatric treatment following the institutional closures.
These unresolved mental health conditions are common within the homeless population, creating another source of prejudice. Van Ness said the best method for changing the conceptions of these stereotypes is to directly address the scenario.
“The best way to challenge a stereotype is to actually work with the people in those situations,” Van Ness said. “It’s arrogant to think that you can’t end up in that situation.”
Councilmember Charlie Odegaard also mentioned volunteering as a reliable method for lessening prejudice.
“I really recommend people to volunteer to become more aware and understandable,” Odegaard said. “It takes a community to work together through partnerships to solve our issues.”
In Flagstaff, a variety of charities accept volunteers for a range of efforts. Helping the homeless can be as simple as making charitable donations, sharing food or preparing meals. However, it can also be addressed through concepts such as the harm-reduction approach, housing first philosophy or multipronged approach.
Van Ness defined the harm-reduction approach as engaging in any efforts that make life better. He elaborated that if a homeless person has seven ferrets and 15 dogs, finding a suitable housing situation could take time and effort. However, feeding the person and pets is a more immediate, attainable goal. This method is the harm-reduction approach.
Similarly, the multipronged approach emphasizes helping in a variety of ways.
“Treat people with respect. Say hi, talk a little bit with them,” Van Ness said. “Volunteer some time, do some harm-reduction activities; work on creating spaces for homeless people.”
Homelessness is not a black-and-white subject. Instead, it is filled with subjectivity and variation, especially depending on the person and context. Flagstaff’s humanitarian organizations, such as FSS, Catholic Charities and Sunshine Rescue Mission, truly acknowledge and demonstrate that the homeless are people too. Instead of overlooking this population, PIT surveying analyzes and addresses it while also providing help.
While speaking about the importance of helping other people, Van Ness referenced the Dalai Lama’s — a globally recognized spiritual leader — perception of privilege and ignorance.
“I think the Dalai Lama’s right: We know when people suffer, but we’ve learned how to ignore it,” Van Ness said.