They go into the streets in search of data. Peeking behind dumpsters, shining flashlights under bridges, rustling a frosted tent to see if anyone was inside. This is what it takes to count the people in America who don’t have a place to live. To get a number, however flawed, that describes the scope of a deeply entrenched problem and the country’s progress toward fixing it.

Last year, the Biden administration laid out a goal to reduce homelessness by 25% by 2025. The problem increasingly animates local politics, with ambitious programs to build affordable housing getting opposition from homeowners who say they want encampments gone but for the solution to be far from their communities. Across the country, homelessness is a subject in which declarations of urgency outweigh measurable progress.

Officially called the Point-in-Time Count, the annual tally of those who live outside or in homeless shelters takes place in every corner of the country through the last 10 days of January, and over the past dozen years has found 550,000 to 650,000 people experiencing homelessness. The endeavor is far from perfect, advocates note, since it captures no more than a few days and is almost certainly a significant undercount. But it’s a snapshot from which resources flow, and creates a shared understanding of a common problem.

This year, reporters and photographers from The New York Times shadowed the count to examine the same problem in vastly different places.

On any given evening, the forces that drive someone to sleep outside or in a shelter are myriad and complex. A long-run erosion in wages. A fraying social safety net. The fact that hard drugs are cheap and mental health care is not. Year after year, the count finds people experiencing homelessness to be disproportionately Black, disproportionately old and disproportionately sick. Members of the LGBTQ community are overrepresented as well.

There is one factor — the high cost of housing and difficulty of finding anything affordable — that rises above the rest. The numbers bear this out, explaining why expensive West Coast cities like Los Angeles have long had the nation’s worst homeless problems, why growing cities like Phoenix are now seeing a troubling rise, and why it is seemingly easier to solve homelessness in places like Rockford, Illinois, a once-thriving factory town that has lost a lot of jobs but where housing remains cheap.


“Housing has become a competition for a scarce resource, and when you have that the people who are most vulnerable are going to lose,” Gregg Colburn, a professor at the University of Washington and a co-author of “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem,” said in an interview.

The 2023 count will provide a crucial understanding of the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic and the success of government efforts in blunting its effects.

Last year’s count — 582,462 — showed homelessness was essentially flat from two years ago, a fact that Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, attributed to widespread eviction moratoriums, billions in rental assistance and an expansion of federal housing vouchers that fortified the safety net. The question for this year, Olivet said, is “whether we were able to flatten the curve and even start pointing downwards.”

Behind each number are tens of thousands of volunteers, outreach workers and public safety officers who spend the wee hours looking for the most destitute members of their community.

Sometimes, people gladly answer questions and thank volunteers for what they are doing, with a hope that accurate figures will bring more funding for housing and services. Other times, they feel violated and gawked at.

In Los Angeles, the capital of homelessness, the people who live outside are used to seeing outsiders. This is especially true in Skid Row, a 50-block neighborhood in downtown where some 3,000 people live in the tents, shanties and recreational vehicles that so thoroughly clog the sidewalks that much of the pedestrian traffic is in the streets. So when dozens of volunteers in reflective vests left the Downtown Women’s Center to count on a recent evening, the people they were counting rarely so much as looked up.


Some volunteers walk, some drive, but for the most part it happens briskly and the numbers they come back with are large. According to last year’s count, about 20% of the entire nation’s unsheltered population — about 50,000 people — lived in Los Angeles County.

This has left voters despondent: Surveys consistently show housing and homelessness are the biggest concern of California voters, while a recent poll by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute found residents are furious at the city’s inability to make so much as a dent, with many voters saying they feel unsafe and have considered moving because of the homeless problem.

After a campaign last year that focused almost entirely on homelessness, Karen Bass, the city’s new mayor, declared a state of emergency on her first day in office. This gives her office expanded powers to speed the construction of affordable housing by lifting rules that impede it.

“Tonight we’re counting the people on the street, but we also know that it is most important that we prevent new people from falling into homelessness,” the mayor said to a crowd at a kickoff event in the San Fernando Valley. She joined the count shortly after, along with actor Danny Trejo.

In Rockford, Illinois, Angie Walker ticked off a list of where people have been known to sleep. Outside, it was in the mid-20s with a light layer of snow upholstered on fences and grass.

“Our hope is that nobody is outside,” said Walker, who oversees the homeless program for Rockford’s Health and Human Services Department. “We don’t usually get that lucky.”


They did not, but they were close. After a three-hour search, Walker and her team, which included a retired police officer and a member of the Fire Department, found only one person — a shivering man in a tent who clasped his hands as she ran through a list of survey questions — on the night of Rockford’s count.

Rockford is one of the country’s biggest success stories, having effectively ended the condition for veterans and chronically homeless individuals, or those who have experienced homelessness for at least a year, who have severe addiction problems or live with a disability of some kind.

The road to those accomplishments was a program called “Built for Zero,” a coalition of 105 local governments nationwide whose members commit to reorganizing their social services and gathering monthly data with a goal of drastically reducing their homeless population. (In 2021, Community Solutions, the New York nonprofit that created “Built for Zero,” was awarded a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to expand the program.)

Central to the work is a concept called “functional zero,” or the point at which the number of people going into and out of homelessness is equal each month, and anyone who experiences it isn’t homeless for more than a few weeks. This does not mean no one will ever be seen sleeping on the streets: Community Solutions instead likens its strategy to a hospital that can take care of everyone who shows up, even if the medical staff can’t prevent them from getting sick.

The city of 147,000 is a picture of Rust Belt decline, with problems that are a magnification of the country’s stratifying economy.

As Walker surveyed a deserted encampment made with tarps and PVC piping, she noted that some of the city’s success in fighting homelessness could be attributed to its decline. In other words, because there’s been so much disinvestment, Rockford’s housing is cheaper and more plentiful than elsewhere. And such is the irony of homelessness: Economically speaking, it’s easier to solve it in places where things are going poorly than where things are going well.