An annual survey of the region's homeless, which started in the bitter cold of Tuesday night and continued all day yesterday, will likely report rising numbers of men, women and children who have no permanent place to live, advocates said.
Despite the capital region's relative prosperity, advocates said, shelters this year are filled beyond capacity, and overflow shelters are filling up as fast as they open.
"The overflow is overflowing," said Stephen Cleghorn, who heads the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' committee on homelessness. "There is definitely something going on with people being pushed into the streets this year."
Because of the cold, many of the area's hypothermia shelters have been open for weeks. The peak number of people sheltered on any night in the District last winter was 2,306, but this winter there have been as many as 2,495 people in a single night, Cleghorn said.
Last night, as temperatures dipped into the teens, the phone was "jumping off the hook," said Jean Barton, who runs District homeless services through the United Planning Organization and answers calls on the city's hypothermia hotline.
City shelters were close to capacity about 10:30 p.m., Barton said, "but they're not full. We have room for those people out there."
In the District, a call -- whether from a concerned passerby or a homeless person seeking help -- sends the hypothermia van to a scene. Workers in the van urge homeless people to go to a shelter. About 600 people choose to stay outside in the District even on the coldest nights, according to the Department of Health Services.
The cold does not fully explain the high numbers that advocates expect to tally during this year's count.
"The cold doesn't push people onto the streets," Cleghorn said. "The downturn in the economy does." High housing costs and disability, addiction and chronic illness continue to contribute to the rising toll, he said.
Starting Tuesday night, when temperatures plummeted toward 10 degrees, and working through last night, outreach workers and volunteers visited shelters, soup kitchens, street corners and encampments throughout the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, gathering information about every homeless person they could find.
"I never had a home," said Marcia Clark, 54, who has epilepsy and ate dinner Tuesday at Shepherd's Table, a soup kitchen in Silver Spring. She said she stays with friends and in shelters and relies upon emergency rooms for medical care.
In a semirural area of Woodbridge, where enumerators were combing the woods Wednesday for indigent campers, Gayle Sanders, director of the Volunteers of America shelter, said she had no doubt that the survey would show higher numbers this year than last.
"I saw this coming in summer," she said. "We were seeing a 30 percent increase in turn-aways in the summer months."
This year's one-day count is the third such regional effort coordinated by COG. A year ago, enumerators tallied 13,982 homeless men, women and children in the region, an 8.8 percent increase from 2001. About half were in the city, and about half were in the suburbs.
The number of children counted last year was 3,866 -- 12.5 percent more than in 2001. More than 30 percent of the 10,116 adults were employed, an indication that housing costs continue to contribute to homelessness.
The 2003 results will be released in the spring, but for many people who work with the needy, the handwriting is on the wall.
"The best barometer of increased need . . . is people who just walk in the door needing food, clothing . . . emergency assistance, and that went up by 1,280 people for us last year," said Mary Lou Tietz, executive director of the District-based Community Family Life Services, which serves poor and homeless people.
Officials at the Maryland Food Bank -- which supplies hundreds of shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries -- said 86 percent of those providers saw more homeless and hungry people in 2002. More than half said they are serving more families and children than ever before, and nearly half reported seeing more elderly and unemployed people.
At the same time, agencies that provide services to the homeless are struggling to do more with less. Foundations hurt by the stock market dive have reduced grants. The United Way of the Capital Area, a mainstay of many service providers, is reeling from a financial scandal.
Silver Spring Community Vision, a job-training program for the homeless that shares quarters with Shepherd's Table at Progress Place, recently learned that it had lost its HUD funding, leaving it with a gaping shortfall.
Officials said day programs such as Community Vision that help the homeless lift themselves out of poverty have lost federal housing dollars to programs that provide nighttime shelter. But this winter, even daytime programs are providing nighttime shelter.
At Progress Place on Tuesday night, the remains of the evening meal for 200 people were cleared away, and the floors were swept. Some of the dinnertime crowd of homeless men and women pitched in, folding chairs and tables, making places to sleep.
Joseph Kenneth Clark, 60, an impeccably dressed man with a neat white beard, was helping with the cleanup. Clark said he has a mental disability and gets by on Social Security disability payments. He said he wasn't sure where he would stay on that icy night, but he added with a soft smile, "Hopefully right here."