While some students spend their Friday nights at bars, a group of LBJ School students recently spent theirs counting homeless people in South Austin. Twelve LBJ students braved the cold weather Friday, Jan. 24th to volunteer for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s (ECHO) annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Count. Students drove, walked, and hiked through South Austin in search of people without a place to call home for the night as part of a community outreach event organized by the Graduate Public Affairs Council (GPAC). The volunteers quickly realized this was not as easy a task as they originally anticipated, since the cold weather led people to take shelter in less exposed locations. However, students remained dedicated to their task, motivated by the idea that more people successfully counted would contribute to more federal dollars supporting ECHO’s mission to end homelessness in Austin.

ECHO is a collaborative network of nonprofit organizations and service providers that connect homeless individuals with resources including: emergency shelters, housing programs, and prevention strategies. In 2013, the coalition supported over 10,000 people in Austin, both through formal programs and informal services such as distributing bus passes. ECHO also collects and consolidates valuable data about the state of homelessness in the city, which is distributed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Cities across the country participate in the annual PIT Count to identify sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in an attempt to understand homeless population needs, measure the progress of support programming and services, and secure funding from HUD. This year’s count in Austin fell on the first ‘ice day’ of 2014, creating an extra challenge for volunteers, since homeless individuals took less exposed shelter and were more difficult to identify. HUD actually requires participating cities to conduct their counts during the last 10 days of January. This is a strategic decision since the cold weather often leads more homeless people to visit overnight shelters and community centers, allowing volunteers to count the number of homeless individuals in the city more accurately.

LBJ School students canvassed the area south of Lady Bird Lake including Zilker Park and parts of the Greenbelt in hiking boots and earmuffs. Students quickly realized that the parks were not very popular that evening, as people sought shelter in warmer locations. One team found 10 people keeping warm in a South Austin McDonald’s, while another team interviewed a man enjoying a cup of coffee at IHOP.

Students said they found the experience rewarding and exciting.  Steve Damiano, a second-year Global Policy Studies Student, said he signed up for the event to be part of a fulfilling and unique experience that had a meaningful impact. Other student volunteers mentioned that participating in the PIT challenged their biases and comfort zones and thought it was effective training for the policy world.

ECHO coordinators were thrilled to have LBJ School student support. They have already requested to host a training session at the school next year to make it easier for student volunteers to get involved and to spread awareness of opportunities to support Austin’s homeless population.

If you are interested in getting involved with the planning process, please contact katiecasstevens@utexas.edu and visit www.austinECHO.org for more volunteer opportunities throughout the year.

Photo Credit: John Shapely for KUT News