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Homeless counters hit nation's streets for cold, hard numbers

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Volunteers stream into the Seattle Central headquarters of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness' annual homeless count on Jan. 26, 2007. More than 700 volunteers participated in a count that found 2,140 people with housing or shelter that night. (Jake Warga/Courtesy of SKCCH)

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A team of volunteers led by Rich Gamble, center, prepares to search a park in downtown Seattle in the early hours of the morning during the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness' annual homeless count on Jan. 26, 2007. (Jake Warga/Courtesy of SKCCH)

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Volunteer badges are ready to be picked up at the Seattle Central headquarters of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness' annual homeless count on Jan. 26, 2007. (Jake Warga/Courtesy of SKCCH)

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A volunteer consults an area map of a Seattle neighborhood in the early hours of the morning during the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness' annual homeless count on Jan. 26, 2007. (Jake Warga/Courtesy of SKCCH)

Seven homeless men lay sprawled on the dull granite stoop of St. Paul's Church in midtown Manhattan one recent evening, shielding themselves from the cold with cardboard boxes, layered newspapers and filthy rugs, when Tony Solomita approached their makeshift lodging.

One by one he woke them, sharpening his voice and jostling those who didn’t respond. Across 54th Street, the tall display windows of the Golfsmith Golf and Tennis Shop glowed with a buttery hue, casting soft shadows onto the black pavement.

Solomita, wearing scuffed boots and a bulky blue jacket laced with round New York Sanitation Department patches, finished his questions and marked the men’s responses on a clipboard overflowing with survey sheets. One of 3,000 volunteers for the city's annual homeless count, he jotted down the time--12:35 a.m.--and put his head down into the wind, walking toward Lexington Avenue, the next leg of his assigned route.

“I asked if they wanted to be taken to a shelter,” Solomita said, his breath puffing into the night air. “But they all said they wanted to stay. Fine. We got their information, and we're going to keep going.”

The homeless street count--a “point-in-time” snapshot census of people living on the blocks and benches of a community--was relatively rare even 10 years ago. But changes in grant rules at the Department of Housing and Urban Development made such counts a necessity for most municipalities and outreach groups.

The result has been a new national tradition that transforms the last week in January into homeless count season. Volunteers are turning out in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and isolated areas like Summit County, Colo., for late night work collecting data on an unpredictable population.

“A lot of the time, we're torn between the happiness and excitement of the day and the somber reality of what we see out there,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless. “It's a really difficult set of emotions to balance.”

In Seattle, the homeless often take refuge in vehicles, so this year Eisinger placed eight interview teams on “night owl” buses that circled the perimeter of King County from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. They found 124 people, an even more destitute group than the homeless people downtown who routinely move their cars and trucks to avoid scrutiny.

“It's a downward cycle for these folks, whose bodies have given out and where the alcohol has taken over, and there's nowhere for them to go,” said a social worker who has volunteered three consecutive years in Seattle.

Counters needed three nights to comb through the configuration of 88 cities in Los Angeles County, which has a combined population higher than all but eight states. In addition to 1,500 volunteers, organizers recruited and trained hundreds of homeless to interview their counterparts, paying $10 an hour and sending teams out to Beverly Hills and downtown's famed Skid Row.

“It's not something typical of government to pull together all these people and organize the homeless folks,” said Natalie Komuro, director of policy and planning for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “The combination of adrenaline and sleep deprivation really wipes you out.”

With critical financing at stake, organizers must be certain to meet federal standards. When groups have enough bodies to canvass every part of their region, they use observed numbers as the estimate. Larger geographic areas require sampling, with cities or counties broken down by census tract or some similar measurement and randomly selected to be visited.

For the second year, New York added a method known as “the shadow count,” developed by Dr. Kim Hopper, a medical anthropologist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, N.Y. Each year, hundreds of students pose as “decoy” homeless and occupy assigned locations around the city. The percentage of decoys discovered helps to clarify how effective the street count has been.

For all counts, homeless people within known shelters or clinics are added separately, and figures usually fail to account for people who sleep in remote or dangerous locations like abandoned buildings, where volunteers do not search. Still, these counts provide statistical rigor to a field that often lacked reliable data before the housing department began mandating at least a biannual count in 2004.

A standards sheet distributed to cities by H.U.D.'s Office of Special Needs Assistance stresses that “counts must be based on reliable methods, not guesstimates.” While technically a recommendation rather than a requirement, the department, which has a $1.2 billion budget for homeless assistance grants (New York's Department of Homeless Services expects to receive $148 million in 2007), rewards applications that hew closely to the suggested procedures.

Before the standards were imposed, “People used the best information they could cobble together,” Hopper said. “They'd ask people at shelters, they'd ask cops, ask anybody who could make a plausible case to be a local expert, fashioning something that looked the right number.”

Now, Hopper said, “they're still not done all the same way, but it's not ambiguous or floating.”

This year, Solomita’s team found two shadow counters during its three hours on the streets of New York. They also found homeless people sleeping in narrow doorways and beneath reinforced tarps next to Park Avenue. Yet, not a single person agreed to come to a shelter on a night when the temperature dropped below freezing.

Most of the homeless they surveyed were polite, though some were curt. Many pointed the team to popular sleeping corners or areas. Some interviewees, however, simply did not understand what they were being asked.

“I'm not homeless,” said a man darting away from Solomita. “My housing situation is outstanding.”

E-mail: baf2113@columbia.edu