Homeless count a unique challenge for census workers

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; B01

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.

Karakcheyeva, Price and Kallon-Nmah said they would work from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. to count as many homeless as possible. By noon, they had counted about 12. But they said they would return at night when homeless men and women settle down after working odd jobs and panhandling.

The women climbed back in the minivan when no one appeared at the tent. As they drove on Randolph Road, Price turned to Kallon-Nmah and said, "There's Todd."

Todd was walking on the sidewalk toward his tent in the woods, dragging his left leg, which has a congenital defect. He didn't want to talk, but he was counted. Price shouted again. "There's Carmen."

Carmen Despertt, 46, was holding a sign: "Homeless. Please Help. God Bless." "I've been out here for four years," she said. She lives behind Montrose Crossing with her boyfriend, Tommy.

With leathery skin, missing teeth and frown lines surrounding her shiny green eyes, Despertt said she'd rather live outdoors than with hundreds of noisy people in shelters.

In addition to taking the homeless census, the women offered housing information, mental health screening, referrals for medical assistance and counseling.

Price has helped Despertt obtain food stamps and directed her to shelter on cold nights. As part of her outreach, she has helped another tent dweller, who she could identify only as M. Johnson, pay for traffic citations and earn a license to drive a cab.

When Kallon-Nmah pulled the van into a parking lot to speak with Despertt, four Latinos surrounded it, thinking she was seeking workers. Alfredo, 39, who said he was from Honduras, and Santos Reyes, 43, who said he was from El Salvador, said they hadn't worked steadily in six months. They said they would do anything -- painting, drywall, carpeting.

Karakcheyeva rushed to them with her papers. Reyes said he was from the District, so he couldn't be counted. But she tallied the three others, including the rail-thin Alfredo.

"We'll be out until very late," she said. "We have to cover a lot of ground."

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