GAO: Better Data Collection Can Improve Homelessness Estimates


Auditors suggest the Housing and Urban Development Department can improve its homeless estimates by gathering better data at the local level.

The Housing and Urban Development Department can improve its ability to estimate nationwide homeless by better engaging and coordinating with communities over how best to use and collect data, according to the Government Accountability Office.

HUD relies on local bodies that coordinate homelessness services—called “continuums of care,” or CoCs—to provide a “point-in-time count” of homelessness totals across the nation.

An audit released Nov. 22 indicates that HUD allows CoCs to use various methods such as a census or sampling count to estimate homeless populations. In counting unsheltered individuals, HUD requires CoCs to use in-person methods, such as sending enumerators to physically locate and ask questions of homeless individuals on the night of the count. And while HUD also permits CoCs to use administrative data and records collected by public or nonprofit bodies that serve the homeless, the agency isn’t steering data collection and aggregation efforts enough, leading to potential inaccuracies in homelessness estimates.

“HUD does not provide CoCs with examples of how to extract and use administrative data for the unsheltered count,” the GAO audit said. “By doing so, HUD could help improve the quality and consistency of CoCs’ estimates and position CoCs to provide better estimates, particularly if in-person counts are again disrupted, as they were in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

GAO’s audit was based largely on a survey of 41 CoCs across the country. The survey revealed 31 of those CoCs relied on HUD funds, 19 used state or local funds and 10 used private donations. It also revealed that each CoC used volunteers to complete their point-in-time homelessness counts, resulting in an average of 4.8 work hours per homeless person counted.

GAO recommended that HUD provide CoCs additional information regarding how they can use administrative data to improve the accuracy of their counts. HUD agreed with that recommendation.