Making a Class Count: Incorporating the PIT Count into an MSW Research Course

Most of us who work in the field of homelessness are familiar with the point-in-time (PIT) count, which entails using volunteers to attempt a census of people experiencing homelessness within a community. These homeless counts are a federal funding requirement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but they also provide valuable information and insight about the prevalence, incidence, and scope of homelessness in a community.

Beyond these explicit and pragmatic purposes, however, homeless counts are also a community engagement event. A broad spectrum of community members concerned about homelessness comes together to engage with the lived reality of homelessness in their community. While some volunteers, like service providers or advocates, may already be familiar with these realities, for many other volunteers, participating in the count is one of the few experiences they will have conversing and engaging with individuals experiencing homelessness. Indeed, some research suggests that participating in a homeless count, and the resulting direct contact volunteers have with individuals on the street, can dispel and mitigate some of the common misconceptions and stigma toward people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. And so, as educators and researchers concerned about the growing distrust and lack of empathy toward people experiencing homelessness, we feel there is great potential to leverage the homeless count as an opportunity for the broader community, including students, to learn about and engage with homelessness.

Balancing Our Roles as Researchers and Educators

During the last couple of years, we have become increasingly involved in the homeless count in our community of Sacramento, California. In 2017, we worked with our community partners to improve the methodology of how the count is conducted— for example, helping design a more rigorous sampling and survey method to increase the reliability of the count. And in 2018, we continued this work to introduce various innovations to improve the accuracy of the 2019 count, from using mobile apps to conduct surveys to improving sampling strategies.

One of the innovations we are most proud of this year has been incorporating our Sacramento State students in the implementation of the homeless count. This past January, over 200 of the 900 volunteers deployed were students. To give a little context, in 2017, only 230 volunteers participated in the Sacramento homeless count, which had been typical for Sacramento since PIT counts began in the region. As such, this year was by far the largest homeless count that Sacramento has ever had—reflecting the sad reality of growing homelessness in our community (and California more broadly), as well as greater engagement from the community, stakeholders, and our university. From our lens that the PIT count is also a community engagement event, the larger turn-out of volunteers and increased community engagement this year represents in some respects a point of success and progress.

Recruiting More Volunteers and Our Students

One of the key points we advocated for this year was the need to seek a broad spectrum of volunteers to participate in the count and to do strategic outreach targeting volunteers who have social service backgrounds (e.g., direct-service providers, social workers, nurses, etc.). We emphasized the importance of having specific volunteers designated as team leads who could leverage their social services experience and expertise to ensure the count was conducted with respect, cultural humility, and professionalism. We encouraged the organizers to recruit and establish teams of volunteers with a variety of experiences and perspectives, with team leads who would use their expertise to help guide the team during the night of the count. We also argued that the team lead should be the key point person to initiate conversations with individuals on the street and to conduct the formal in-person surveys, which are used to estimate the demographic composition of the homeless population in Sacramento. We believed having experienced team leads, and providing them additional training on engagement and interviewing techniques, would increase the response rate of the survey and ensure that conversations were initiated appropriately. We also encouraged organizers to recruit volunteers from our social work program, as well as the broader university.

Incorporating the PIT Count into a Research Course

In our department, students can engage in research through a capstone course. To encourage student involvement in the count, we created a year-long capstone course centered on homelessness and the homeless count. In the spring of 2018, we announced this new capstone course. Traditionally, the capstone course resembles a structured thesis, where students work closely with faculty to develop and implement empirical research throughout their last year of the MSW program. For the 2018-2019 academic year, we pitched two capstone course opportunities—one on quantitative research and one on qualitative research. Students would spend the first semester doing literature reviews about an aspect of homelessness and learning about survey techniques and engagement strategies used in the homeless count. The second semester would entail participating in the count itself, as well as analyzing previously collected data to inform students’ respective empirical projects. The goal was to engage students in a capstone research project that directly reflects and impacts the community.

Approximately 60 graduate students expressed interest in the first semester capstone course. Due to class size constraints, we enrolled 40 students in two course sections. In collaboration with our Community Engagement Center, we also set up the homeless count as a service-learning activity open to all students and used funding from the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative to hold informational sessions to spark student and faculty interest in the count. One of these was a panel on myths about homelessness.

Student Perspectives Regarding the Experience

As the video above highlights, our students played an integral role on the night of the homeless count. Many of them expressed that they gained a deeper understanding of community-based research and a greater understanding of homelessness through this experience. We asked students what participating in the count meant for them. Below are some of their responses.

Student #1

I had never heard of the PIT project until my capstone. Initially, the thought of being sent out at night to the streets of Sacramento County to count homeless scared me. I was concerned about safety. Coming to volunteer, I was also fearful about conducting interviews just because I did not know how people were going to respond and because of my own bias. I was also a little nervous about going out with people I did not know to a place I was unfamiliar with. While we only counted five individuals in our route, and in the end were unable to do a single interview, I still enjoyed participating in the PIT. The experience gave me a new perspective and awareness of the homelessness issue here in Sacramento and how there are many people without a shelter suffering different adversities and in need of help. I can see that there is a need for services and support to help decrease homelessness. Finally, it was surprising to me seeing all these different people coming out to volunteer and give their time to go out to count and interview homeless people. It was nice to see how the community supported this event. I am looking forward to knowing the results of the count and seeing what services will be created or provided (if any) to support the homeless population.

Student #2

My understanding of community-based research was expanded through participation in training, volunteer registration, the count itself, and independent processing time with fellow MSW student volunteers. From the experience, I gained a critical, yet small, understanding of what is needed to implement such a project in a region like Sacramento. Key factors include organization, adaptable leaders, and volunteers who demonstrate respect for the integrity of the project and the value of the findings. Additionally, access to reliable and user-friendly technology appeared to contribute to the ease of data collection.

Student #3

To read about homelessness is one thing, but to hear the stories of those experiencing homelessness is quite another. With all my training as a graduate student of social work, my own lived experience with homelessness as a child, and a son of a mother suffering from severe and persistent mental illness, I should be free from all judgement and bias. But even burgeoning professionals in the field, and seasoned experts alike, are not free from the cultural context that surrounds them. We’re inundated by messages from the media and national discourses that attribute the causes of homelessness to a lack of morality or a desire to avail oneself to the resources that we, as the domiciled population, believe exist in plenty. But my interaction while interviewing individuals and families during the count challenged these internal biases. Maybe it is true that contact reduces stigma.

Given student feedback about how volunteering for the PIT count impacted their understanding of the realities of research and the experience of homelessness, we hope to consider additional opportunities for students to engage in practical, action-based homelessness research in our community. Further, as we consider the successes and lessons learned from our experience of building student community research experiences into our curriculum, we invite others who have engaged students in PIT counts to share their experience with us.

Blog Post Authors: Arturo Baiocchi, PhD and Susanna Curry, PhD – both Assistant Professors of Social Work at Sacramento State 

The National Center Supports Youth Homelessness Symposium

Note: This post was guest authored by Jenna Mellor, Associate Director of Point Source Youth.

Point Source Youth is thrilled that the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services (the National Center) is a presenting sponsor of the upcoming Second Annual Symposium on Solutions to End Youth Homelessness. This nationwide convening of leaders addressing youth homelessness—from providers to youth, policy experts to researchers—is co-sponsored by New York University’s Silver School of Social Work (a partner of the National Center) and the McSilver Institute of Poverty, Policy, and Research, and will be held at New York University’s Kimmel Center on April 30th and May 1st, 2018.

The participation of the National Center is especially critical because social workers are at the forefront of supporting individuals experiencing homelessness. Social workers are well-positioned to demand the systems change needed to re-imagine the cycle of displacement for youth experiencing homelessness – a cycle perpetuated by traditional shelter models. Excellence includes embodying what we know are best practices in the field: Housing First, positive youth development, trauma-informed care, anti-racism and equity practices, and ensuring that youth are meaningful collaborators in the solutions that impact them most.

Leaders in social work practice, research, and education were instrumental to the success of last year’s symposium and in planning exciting, new content for this year. We are excited to have presenters from three of the National Center’s partner schools – NYU, the University of Southern California (USC), and Hunter College. Drs. Deborah Padgett (NYU) and Ben Henwood (USC), national co-leaders of the Academy for Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge to End Homelessness, will both be presenting. Dr. Padgett is on our  planning committee and will lead an interactive breakout session on innovative research. Dr. Henwood (USC) will present on his work at the intersections of health, technology, and youth homelessness. Dr. Jama Shelton (Hunter College) also serves on the planning committee, and is partnering with planning committee member and youth advocate Sophie-Rose Cadle to plan a breakout session on centering the leadership and self-defined priorities of trans and gender expansive youth experiencing homelessness. Continuing Education Credits will be provided by NYU.

Other presenters include Drs. Eric Rice and Robin Petering (both of USC) and Dr. Matthew Morton (Chapin Hall). Dr. Morton will present on the monumental data released by the Voices of Youth Count project, which shows the scope of youth homelessness nationally and the disproportionate experiences of youth of color, queer youth, and parenting youth. The findings were recently released in their Missed Opportunities report and have motivated many of us to do more and do better. For more information about Missed Opportunities and its implications for social work, check out the National Center’s recent blog post on the topic.

Dr. Padgett eloquently describes the need for the symposium and why social workers seeking excellence should consider attending:

“Youth homelessness in the United States has reached record levels, yet not enough is known about ‘what works.’ DebP With a robust evidence base and human rights values,Housing First has shown that relying on institutional care and shelters diverts scarce funding and support away from effective long-term solutions. To advance the national discourse on helping homeless youth in the Housing First era, this symposium features promising approaches, including rapid re-housing, host homes, and family strengthening.  Attendees will not only learn about best practices and policies but will be asked to join in solving the problem of youth homelessness through effective and passionate advocacy.”

Planning committee member and youth advocate Marcelle LaBrecque, pictured below, (who is, not coincidentally, the dynamic co-host of Point Source Youth’s webinar series Ask A Rockstar!) seconds the value of attending the symposium: “You will leave changed, regardless of if you come for the information, the food, or the people,” he said. Learning about the interventions and hearing the advocacy of a wide range of young people and adult allies will change you and your approach to ending youth homelessness.” 


We look forward to seeing new and familiar faces at this year’s symposium. And, for those of you interested in learning more about the National Center, Amanda Aykanian, the National Center’s Research and Project Lead, will be attending both days.

Blog Post Author: Jenna Mellor (pictured left), Associate Director at Point Source Youth, is a harm reduction advocate with nine years of experience at the intersection of direct service and program development. Her work is rooted in the principles of bodily autonomy and human dignity, and she is passionate about Point Source Youth’s goal of building the evidence base for Housing First practices in youth housing.

UAlbany Supports Statewide Coalition for Homeless Youth

In November, the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare co-hosted the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth’s (CHY) Annual Conference for the fourth year in a row. CHY is a statewide membership network of providers who serve runaway and homeless youth and young adults across New York. This partnership aligns with UAlbany’s goals for the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative and its role as part of the New York-New Jersey Regional Network.

Amanda Aykanian, doctoral candidate and Research and Project Lead for the National Center, works closely with CHY’s executive director, Jamie Powlovich, to plan the event. Cara Duffy, the school’s administrative assistant, supports this effort by managing space, food, and parking logistics.


This year’s conference took place over two days, with the first day at UAlbany and the second at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. Along with the many CHY member attendees, there were several young people in attendance – most who are members of New York City’s homeless youth advisory council (pictured left, with Jamie Powlovich on the far right). Young people had active roles throughout the event. You can hear the powerful opening remarks from Ja’asriel Bishop here.

The conference theme was, “Resilience and Resistance: Empowering Youth and Improving the Systems that Serve Them”. Workshops and roundtables addressed a wide range of topics, including the following:

  • federal policy updates and strategic recommendations
  • meeting the legal needs of homeless youth
  • Housing First best practices
  • human trafficking
  • outreach strategies
  • working with transgender and non-binary youth
  • using administrative data to measure housing trajectories
  • rural services resources and challenges
  • statewide policy planning


Amanda presented findings from a study she recently conducted in the Capital Region on service and policy considerations when working with homeless youth. This study was  published in Children and Youth Services Review. She also led a roundtable on using youth leadership to end youth homelessness (pictured right).

The event closed with the presentations of the 2017 Margot Hirsch Moxie Award (pictured below), which was given to Michael Berg, executive director of Family of Woodstock.

55ae6fa5-d59e-4d6e-8f27-ad448575914bFor more information on CHY, check out their website and Facebook page.

For more information on youth homelessness, read our recent post about the Voices of Youth Count project.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, MA, Research and Project Lead, National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services


University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work Hosts “Evicted” Author, Matthew Desmond

This past May, the Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) at the University of Houston (UH) chose the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City as a summer reading experience for all members of the college to read and discuss together at the start of the semester. Meanwhile, GCSW Dean Alan Dettlaff was preparing to launch a new lecture series – Speaking of Social Justice, the Maconda Brown O’Connor Distinguished Lecture. It seemed a natural fit to invite the author of the summer read – Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University – to be the inaugural speaker. Subsequently, Evicted was named the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction. The Pulitzer Prize Board recognized Desmond’s work as “a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.”  The GCSW and the university were honored to host Desmond for a lecture, Q&A, and book signing.

A sociologist by training, Desmond shared about the research methodology that became the basis for the book. He and his team conducted the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) in Milwaukee’s low-income private housing sector. Surveying 1,000 households in person, they achieved an 84% response rate, no small feat considering their instrument consisted of 250 questions. Desmond stressed the importance of “shoe leather” in designing the research study, research questions, and sample recruitment. They learned asking “have you ever been evicted” was artificially suppressing their results – a person with an eviction on their record may answer “no” to that question, because they define eviction differently, such as having one’s things put on the curb.

As homelessness declines nationwide, housing insecurity is rising. Desmond reported one in four Americans spend 70% of their income on rent. Desmond found that, according to court documents, 40 people are evicted every day in Milwaukee. This is on average 1 in 29 households (1 in 14 black households). However, factoring other involuntary moves that go unreported to the courts, the number is closer to 1 in 8. This is an epidemic that pervasively impacts a person’s life. When a person is evicted, they not only lose their home but they may also lose their school, belongings, community, safety, job, and health.

Desmond argues that without access to stable housing, everything else falls apart. Similar to the way the U.S. government has committed to providing economic security for the elderly and food security for the poor, Desmond proposes that we should refocus resources to provide access to housing for all Americans.

Comment from student attendee:

“I felt fortunate to hear Desmond’s presentation. He won the Pulitzer Prize not only for his quality research but his ability to tell a story with statistics. He did an extensive amount of ethnographic research, living for months with people going through evictions and learning from the landlords in both white and black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. His book details heartbreaking and unfair (but also sometimes funny and joyful) moments in the lives of numerous families. Now, he travels the country sharing what he’s learned. And, after everything he’s witnessed, and in the midst of such a divided political climate, he remains optimistic that our nation can rise to the challenge to solve this crisis.”
~ Stephanie Coates (blog post author)

Desmond’s UH presentation was polished and tailored to those in attendance. He knew he was speaking to a room of social workers, and as he concluded his remarks, he issued a call. To bring about change, Desmond recognizes many people will have to be at the table. He said the crisis of eviction and housing insecurity (explore the data for your town) demands coalitions of people invested in our communities’ public and mental health, education, criminal justice, public safety, and spiritual lives must come together. Social workers can be instrumental in answering that call. One resource for information and connection is, which “features links to over 600 organizations working to preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness, and presents stories from Americans who have faced eviction.”

Comment from student attendee:

“During his UH presentation, when Desmond said the ‘rent eats first’ and ‘home is for ourselves, every other place is for everything else,’ I knew he was not saying these lines as mere words that might elicit interest in his talk. If I had heard him speak before reading Evicted, I honestly would have thought they were quotes to add theatrics. I did not understand what is truly happening in so many cases of eviction. I attributed the cause to the person making what I would call an unknowing decision, thinking of consequences of my own past actions, not a system that creates a cycle, and often a spiral, of despair. Desmond stating eviction may be ‘inevitability not irresponsibility’ is what sticks with me. As he said, people have written the scenario about the poor, but never the why. Through the research captured in Evicted, Desmond uncovered the why.”
~ Stephanie King (blog post author)

Blog Post Authors: University of Houston MSW Students Stephanie Coates and Stephanie King (pictured above with Matthew Desmond)

Sacramento State Tackles Homelessness Locally

The team at California State University, Sacramento, comprised of Drs. Tyler Argüello and Arturo Baiocchi, has been busy over the past year conducting various activities and, now, celebrating some initial accomplishments.

Interprofessional Workshops

The overarching theme of the workshops this year was to “de-center” the conversation on homelessness.  That is to say, we tried to have the audience and the presenters step out of the role of ‘experts’ and re-center our focus and possible responses on the people affected by homelessness and co-occurring issues. The interactive workshops were open to faculty, staff, students, and community partners, and sought to cultivate an ongoing dialogue about issues related to housing insecurity. The workshops were partly interactive as well as included guest presentations on resources and issues related to regional homelessness. The first workshop included a set of activities facilitated by Dr. Argüello designed to encourage students to re-visit their own implicit biases they may have toward individuals experiencing housing insecurity. The activity was followed by a presentation from the CEO of Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency in Sacramento working on homelessness issues. Students were introduced to various initiatives being pursued by local non-profits, and the election of a new mayor who has made homelessness a key issue for the city to address.

The second workshop focused on student homelessness on campus. The workshop included activities that encouraged students to consider how the lived experiences of homeless students may differ from their own. The activity was followed by a presentation by Student Affairs that discussed new state legislation and CSUS policies being implemented to protect students experiencing housing insecurity. The new university Case Manager, Danielle Munoz, LMFT, and MSW Intern Virgil Rambeau gave a detailed presentation on how students can qualify and apply for food assistance, emergency housing, and other resources on and off campus.

Both workshops were well attended with a total of 45 participants from social work, nursing, speech  pathology, sociology, and psychology. Baiocchi and Argüello plan on continuing the workshop series with two addition sessions in Fall and Spring of next year.

Sacramento PointinTime Study

In December 2016, Dr. Baiocchi was approached by Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF) for assistance with the biennial Point-In-Time count of homeless individuals for Sacramento County. Drs. Argüello and Baiocchi recruited 75 CSUS students to assist in data collection and data entry.  To assist in the analysis of the data, Dr. Baiocchi invited Dr. Jennifer Price-Wolf (Assistant Professor in Social Work) and Keith Hodson from the Institute for Social Research to the project. The final analysis and report were completed in July 2017. The report was also referenced by the New York Times regarding housing problems in California.

Smart Policing Initiative: County Sheriff Homeless Outreach Team

In September 2016, CSUS won a research project with the Sacramento County Sherriff’s Department and Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF) regarding a new SMART Policing Initiative, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance and U.S. Department of Justice. Sacramento is one of six sites in the country selected for two years of funding. The project will evaluate a new Homeless Street Outreach collaboration between Sherriff deputies and SSF Street Navigators, looking at access to services in the outskirts of the city, the impacts to the surrounding community, and the possible cultural changes that may occur due to increased collaboration between the Sherriff Deputies and social service providers.

Californians Speak on Social Welfare

In Spring 2016 Drs. Baiocchi, Argüello, and Price-Wolf (along with three other social work faculty at CSUS) secured funding for a multi-year, probability-based survey project called The Californians Speak on Social Welfare (CSSW) Survey. The CSSW project seeks to assess how Californians view various social issues and policies implicated in social work practice. The first and second surveys were developed and implemented in Fall 2016, the first of which concerned perceptions of social work and child welfare reporting and the second concerned stigma related to homelessness and mental health. The third will be conducted in Summer 2017. The data has already been used for MSW students’ thesis projects, and peer-reviewed articles are forthcoming. In an effort to make homelessness a more integral part of the curriculum at CSUS, Dr. Baiocchi offered his thesis students the opportunity to analyze the CSSW survey data as it pertains to homelessness. A total of five MSW students conducted projects that explored the scholarship on the social and cultural stigmas that homeless individuals experience and the effects that these perceptions may have on public policy.