This week’s question comes from Olusola O., who asked: What can be done to minimize double counting among street homeless people? 

Knowing approximately how many people are homeless in a community is important to assess the extent to which homelessness is a problem in a given area; and to monitor progress in reducing homelessness. 

One popular method is point-in-time (PiT) counts, which helps us learn how many people experience homelessness during a period of time. In terms of how they work, Jesse Donaldson, our PiT count coordinator, explained this in her blog post a few weeks ago:

Over a single point in time – usually a night - communities deploy volunteers to the street to locate, and survey, individuals who are experiencing homelessness. During that same period, volunteers are deployed to shelters, and other overnight facilities, to count and survey those that are staying the night.

At the end of the PiT Count, communities have two types of information: first, estimates of the number of people that are sleeping outside and in shelters; second, information about those that were surveyed. This includes information such as gender, age, veteran status, length of homelessness and service use.

Double counting occurs when someone is counted more than once, thus skewing the data of the PiT count. Inaccuracies are somewhat common, largely because there hasn’t been a consistent framework for PiT counts. Though PiT counts are valuable, they are not mandatory and are inconsistently implemented across Canada.

This is why the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness has developed a PiT count toolkit, in support of the HPS Coordinated PiT Count occurring in 2016. If you’re part of a team responsible for PiT counts, I highly recommend you review the whole toolkit. In the meantime, here are some guidelines from the toolkit to help you avoid double counting.

1. Count at night

People generally have other commitments during the day or will be using other services. Counts done during the day run the risk of double counting because volunteers may encounter the same person at multiple locations. Our toolkit recommend counting at night because “volunteers are more likely to encounter individuals at their chosen sleeping location for the night.”

2. Combine known locations with full coverage

Known locations are shelters, parks, anywhere people experiencing homelessness are known to frequent. Full coverage requires counters to explore the city. The toolkit recommends a combined approach – with very clear boundaries for volunteers to cover – for the most accurate count.

A guide to counting by the British Columbia government also stresses the importance of clear mapping. Preventing overlap is key to avoiding double counting. 

3. Screen/ask questions

The toolkit recommends using a survey method, which includes screening questions and informed consent. This determines eligibility for being counted and gives volunteers the opportunity ask participants if they’ve been asked the same questions that night.

4. Count sheltered and unsheltered people on the same night

Our toolkit recommends counting people in the unsheltered, provisionally sheltered and provisionally accommodated categories (with exemptions). A guide from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends this be done on the same night, when shelters are most full, to ensure the most accurate count.

In 2016, communities across Canada will participate in the HPS Coordinated PiT Count. It’s a significant step towards a national picture of homelessness in Canada. The strategies within the COH PiT Count Toolkit, including steps to reduce double counting, will ensure that the coordinated PiT Count is implemented successfully. 

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.