UChicago Students Volunteer in Annual Homeless Count

The Point-in-Time Homeless Count is an annual census of all individuals experiencing homelessness in the city of Chicago.

By Laura Gersony and Yiwen Lu

Forty students and community members spent a night counting and surveying individuals experiencing homelessness as part of the 2020 Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count.

The PIT count, which took place between 9 p.m. last Thursday and 3 a.m. on Friday, is an annual census of all individuals experiencing homelessness in the city of Chicago.

Because Chicago receives federal funding under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the City must conduct the count during the last week of January as a condition of the grant. The data helps estimate the resources needed to address homelessness in Chicago and track progress in reducing the number of people in this situation.

The University Community Service Center and the Chicago Studies program have coordinated UChicago volunteers for the count since 2016.

Laura Pape, a second-year public policy major, volunteered in the count to better understand the community off campus. “We spend a lot of time in college on campus, and with people who look like us and come from similar places…but is all around us,” Pape said.

Pape believes that although classroom learning is important, exposure to community realities is also instructive. “I think it’s really valuable to learn on the streets, in the city. The city is a whole different class for us.”

Adrianna Barnett, a site organizer for the event and a fourth-year in the College, views her volunteering as part of a broader effort to give back to the community. “I think that the University of Chicago students in particular have a duty to serve and give back to their community, especially because this institution that we’re benefiting from has taken so much from this community.”

“I don’t think that anyone necessarily needs to feel guilty about that, but you do need to do something about it,” Barnett said.

Recent sources of tension between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods include the University’s expansion south of 61st Street, concerns surrounding the anticipated Woodlawn Commons south of the Midway, and prolonged administrative resistance to the opening of a trauma center on the South Side.

Watching other students ignore individuals experiencing homelessness adds to Barnett’s frustration. “I see brushing them off a lot, which is really hard to watch,” Barnett said. “Just treat them with the common dignity and respect that you would if it was someone that you knew.”

Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and part-time lecturer at UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration, told The Maroon that witnessing homelessness informs her research into issues affecting low-income communities. “As a researcher, I feel it’s really important to connect those faces and experience with the numbers that I use regularly in my day-to-day work,” Waxman said.

To Anna Carvlin, a system implementation specialist at the nonprofit All Chicago Making Homelessness History, housing issues are deeply personal. Carvlin lost a family member who was experiencing homelessness in 2011, and she approaches the count with a sobering sense of purpose. “I think that housing is a human right. I think that it’s unconscionable that in a wealthy city like Chicago, that we have homeless people. It’s just not necessary,” Carvlin said.

Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services coordinates the count in collaboration with the homeless prevention nonprofit All Chicago. The Chicago Transit Authority, the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Police Department, and other City agencies also assist with the count.

UChicago community members joined volunteers from around Chicago at Olive Branch Mission, a community service organization in Englewood, where they were divided into groups of three to five people. They then received training from coordinators about how to approach individuals and administer the survey, as well as emergency protocol. The surveys covered the individuals’ demographic information, veteran statuses, and lengths of time experiencing homelessness, among other things.

Volunteer groups then drove to their assigned census districts across the city and conducted the count and surveys, offering scarves, gloves, and shelter information to any individuals they encountered. Volunteers were advised to perform several laps around their district to ensure the accuracy of the count.