Homeless count a unique challenge for census workers

Carmen Despertt, center, who has been homeless for four years, talks with homeless-outreach workers Denise Price, left, and Allicia Kallon-Nmah, right.
Carmen Despertt, center, who has been homeless for four years, talks with homeless-outreach workers Denise Price, left, and Allicia Kallon-Nmah, right. (Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Allicia Kallon-Nmah drove past some luxury apartment high-rises in Rockville and slowed to a stop behind the Montrose Crossing shopping mall. "There they are," she said to Denise Price and Victoria Karakcheyeva, two other homeless-outreach workers who were with her in the minivan.

The women walked carefully toward a big blue tent in a muddy patch of woods, calling out the names of the occupants during their first stop on Wednesday's annual census of the homeless, which would last long into the night. But there was no answer. Counting people who are virtually invisible presents its own set of challenges.

"There is no way you can count every single person who's homeless," said Michael Ferrell, chairman of the Homeless Services Committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which conducts the yearly tally. "We give our best representation of what the homeless population is in our area . . . from one year to another."

Last year's total of 12,035, up from 11,752 in 2008, is expected to rise again this year because of the recession and high unemployment. The final report for this year's census is expected in May, Ferrell said.

The census includes people in transitional housing and emergency shelters, on the streets, and in parks and camp sites, along with formerly homeless people now in permanent housing where they receive assistance from case workers. It does not include those who are doubling up with relatives and friends, sleeping on couches and floors, one step from a shelter or worse.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development demands a count at least every other year from cities and counties across the country so it can allocate money and services designed to combat homelessness.

The Council of Governments has conducted it every year since 2000, according to Ferrell, who said it's too early to determine whether the region's homeless population has increased. The area includes the District and Alexandria, as well as Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick, Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties.

But as she stood in the woods near the shopping mall, Price said she has seen a significant growth in the number of people living in tents and sleeping in cars during her four years on the job with Volunteers of America, Chesapeake.

"It's a great increase," Price said. "I've seen where families have to be split down to singles so the children could stay with relatives and the parents could be placed in shelters."

"They're everywhere," Kallon-Nmah said. "You can't tell all the time because they're keeping their clothes clean."

In the woods, Karakcheyeva, Price and Kallon-Nmah observed the proper decorum for approaching the homeless in a world without welcome mats or doorbells.

"Carmen!" Price shouted to bring a resident from the tent. "Tommy! Denise and Allicia are here," Kallon-Nmah yelled. No one answered.

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