BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Newly released data shows homelessness in the Birmingham area is up since last year, and local and national experts say even that elevated number is likely a significant undercount. 

The data, released by local homelessness service provider One Roof, reflects information collected during a so-called “point-in-time count” of individuals facing homelessness on a single day in 2022. The count includes individuals surveyed across One’s Roof service area, called a “continuum of care,” which covers Jefferson, Shelby, and St. Clair Counties. 

According to the data, 943 individuals faced homelessness during the survey period in 2022, up from 875 people in 2021. The number of veterans, youth, and individuals facing chronic homelessness each increased year over year. Homelessness among the Black community increased, while homelessness in the white community saw a slight decline. 

Rentle Wilson said because the city did not open Boutwell Auditorium as a warming station when snow fell over Birmingham, he and two others slept under a concrete overhang in January 2022. (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

Michelle Farley, One Roof’s executive director, said that she believes the actual number of individuals facing homelessness in her agency’s service area could be four times higher than what point-in-time count data shows. She told CBS 42 earlier this year that the survey is likely a significant undercount because it reflects only a brief, 24-hour snapshot of who is facing homelessness.

“That’s just one day,” she said. “So if they weren’t homeless on that day, they’re not captured. And so we know that, even though what our count is, that we probably have 4,000 unduplicated people that move in and out of homelessness.”

Dr. Marisa Zapata, an associate professor and the director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, also said that point-in-time count is not a reliable reflection of the number of homeless individuals in a community because, among other reasons, it relies on a limited definition of homelessness.

“It’s a very imperfect measure,” Zapata said. “The count is reliant on HUD’s definition of homelessness, which is a very limited one.”

That definition does not include individuals who may be living doubled or tripled up, she said, or people who may be couch surfing or otherwise facing housing insecurity. 

Logistical realities also come into play, Zapata said.

“It’s also never going to count everyone because it’s very hard to do,” she said. 

Still, Zapata said the point-in-time count is one of the only consistent, reliable sources of information related to the number of homeless individuals across “continuums of care” in the United States. Even if the raw numbers themselves are an undercount, she said the data can at least potentially provide a sense of which direction things are going. 

“It’s the best thing we’ve got right now,” she said. “And if you’re using a relatively consistent methodology, you can get a sense of how many more people are experiencing homeless over years, over time.”

Anita Beaty provided services to Atlanta’s homeless community for years. For 20 years, she ran the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, which housed hundreds of individuals every night.

Her view of the point-in-time count is even more pessimistic than Farley’s or Zapata’s.

“The point-in-time count is a waste of time,” she said. “People don’t stand outside and say ‘Count me, I’m homeless.”

Farley, Zapata, and Beaty all agree that the solution to homelessness is affordable, stable housing. 

“People need permanent supportive housing,” Farley said. “But the money has not been there for the type of safe, decent, and affordable housing that we need.”

You can see the latest point-in-time count data by clicking here.