One cold winter night, and many people living without a home

During the 2018 PIT Count volunteers encountered people living in these tents. Photo: Peter Safir

I am sure that at one time or another you have walked the streets of Charlotte or some other city and seen someone sleeping under a store awning, on a bench or on the sidewalk. They are what you, I, and many other people would consider homeless. However, homelessness comes in many shapes and forms, and people who are homeless do not necessarily have to live on the streets, but can sleep in shelters, cars, or abandoned buildings.

Homelessness can sometimes be difficult to recognize. That’s one reason I chose to volunteer on a cold January night from 10 p.m. to midnight with the unsheltered portion of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Point-In-Time Count (PIT Count). I wanted to learn more about some of the people who might be experiencing one of the many forms of homelessness we find in Mecklenburg County.

The PIT Count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is our community’s annual effort to provide a one-night snapshot of homelessness in Mecklenburg County. The PIT Count includes individuals who were either sleeping in shelters (emergency shelter or transitional housing) or unsheltered in a place unfit for human habitation (e.g. cars, park benches) on the night of Jan. 31. As part of the count, volunteers survey anyone they believe is experiencing homelessness during the night of the PIT Count.

In previous years, the count included people living unsheltered and those in shelters, but only those experiencing unsheltered homeless were asked the survey questions. This year was the first year surveys were also conducted for people living in shelters. 

Over the course of the night of Jan. 31 and early morning Feb. 1, more than 250 volunteers scoured the streets to find and survey as many homeless people possible and get a clearer picture of homelessness in Mecklenburg.

Volunteers in the 2018 PIT Count in Mecklenburg County surveyed people living under highway bridges, as above, and those in tents and shelters. Photo: Peter Safir

My team was an eclectic group, consisting of our team leader, an employee of the Urban Ministry Center and two leaders from Mecklenburg Health and Human Services, including Assistant County Manager Anthony Trotman.

My team and I were on foot, but we also had a volunteer driver who delivered supplies such as sleeping bags, toiletries and gloves to people who were surveyed. Over the course of the Point-in-Time Count, the drivers would deliver 350 donated items. 

Each volunteer team was assigned a specific geographic area. Our task was to survey people experiencing unsheltered homelessness on one side of Tryon Street uptown. A team of the same size covered the other side of the street. We spent time in parking lots, at the Epicentre, at bus stops and on stoops. Our two teams counted 29 homeless people, so many that at times all of us were busy conducting interviews..

The PIT Count helps our community learn more about why people in Charlotte are experiencing homelessness. When combined with our community’s system performance measures, this information helps show whether we are making progress to end and prevent homelessness. By using the PIT Count to understand the challenges homeless people face in Charlotte, we are better equipped to tackle the issue of homelessness and come up with effective solutions specific to our city and its residents.

Being able to connect with people living on the street and hearing their life stories was enlightening for me. I believe it can be easy for some of us to walk right past people sleeping on the street without necessarily stopping to think about how or why they might have gotten to where they are. The PIT Count experience made me stop and listen, and in turn empathize with the individuals I interviewed. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about some Charlotte residents who can at times be forgotten, and it is definitely an experience I would recommend others take part in.

To learn more about the PIT Count and to view the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s reports on previous PIT Counts, go to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Dashboard. The website is a joint effort between Mecklenburg County and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

Taelor Malcolm is a junior at UNC Charlotte from Fayetteville, Ga., majoring in international business and minoring in geography and urban studies. She is working at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute as part of the Levine Scholar Partners Research Fellowship.

Graphic: Taelor Malcolm