Collecting Data For Impact, Not Headlines

This blog post picks up from last week’s covering Homeless Point-In-Time Counts. As impactful as the federally required data for the Point-in-Time Count can be, many communities choose to identify additional factors affecting their neighbors experiencing homelessness. Additional areas of interest commonly include service utilization, health care access, interactions with local law enforcement, sexual orientation, foster care experience, and immigration status. Communities frequently incorporate additional questions into their Point-in-Time Count survey instrument to address perceived gaps in federal reporting requirements and to inform their strategic planning, policy, and capacity building efforts.

While these data can prove meaningful to and actionable for individual communities, data elements, question design, and collection often vary widely across communities, which presents challenges when analyzing data both locally and regionally. Without consistent definitions and data collection methods, answers to deceptively simple questions such as How many former foster youth are experiencing homelessness? or How many individuals experiencing homelessness are accessing the emergency room? can quickly become complicated.

As planning for the 2019 Point-in-Time Count begins, the following tips are suggested to help communities prepare their survey materials:

1.       Identify the right partners and engage them early in the planning process.

  • Which systems frequently come into contact with people experiencing homelessness in the community?
  • What data do they already collect?
  • How is the data collected?
  • Who has access or can grant access to the data?

Identifying key partners and what information they already have available can prevent the inclusion of redundant survey items and allow for Point-in-Time Count results to be better contextualized locally.

2.       Prioritize supplemental survey items based on which data are most clearly linked to an outcome.

It may be tempting to include survey items out of sheer curiosity, but in the interest of alleviating survey fatigue and maximizing resources, survey items should be limited to those required by the Point-in-Time Count and supplemental items that are most actionable.

Consider local policy priorities, special initiatives, or subpopulations of growing interest alongside any challenges or limitations to collecting additional information during count activities (e.g., survey length, time and resources available, and highly sensitive topics).

3.       Consult existing surveys when designing questions.

Reviewing how similar questions are asked by other systems or even by neighboring communities can provide opportunities to elevate the importance of data coordination across your system of care and your regional community.

4.       Recognize the limitations of Point-in-Time Count survey data on special subpopulations.

Communities may identify special subpopulations that they want to learn more about during the Point-in-Time Count—particularly those that may be hard-to-reach (e.g., migrant families, gang-involved youth, or victims of human trafficking). While collecting some data on hard-to-reach subpopulations during the Point-in-Time Count can provide baseline data on scope, survey data yields are likely to be low with high confidence intervals, which calls overall accuracy into question.

During planning, it is important to assess whether focusing on special subpopulations or topic areas during the Point-in-Time Count is both feasible and appropriate:

  • What relationships are necessary to successfully engage the population in the survey?
  • What resources do we need to conduct additional surveys?
  • What special training or experience do surveyors need to have?

Also, determine whether collecting additional data through focus groups, service site visits, informational interviews, or secondary sources can better help answer local research questions.

As your community begins planning for this important process, do note the importance of improving data collection consistency in serving to break down silos, to cultivate a shared knowledge base, and ultimately to ignite a community to take action.


Contact your local Continuum of Care to get engaged with the Point-in-Time Counts happening in your community!

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