The number of homeless people in the Washington region rose for a fourth straight year, but many are now finding their way to programs that can help address their problems, according to results of an annual count released yesterday.

The fourth annual point-in-time survey counted 14,537 homeless men, women and children -- up 1.8 percent from last year's survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.The data were gathered Jan. 21 by an army of outreach workers and volunteers who canvassed the residents of shelters, encampments and housing programs for the chronically and temporarily homeless throughout the District and its suburbs.

But unlike in the previous three years, the annual estimate broke down the region's homeless population into two subgroups. The tally includes 11,386 people considered "literally homeless": living outdoors, in precarious housing or in transitional programs, or relying upon the area's patchwork of emergency shelters and services for help. An additional 3,151 are considered "permanently supported homeless," depending upon homeless services but in a stable setting.

"About 11,000 are still wending their way through the system, but 3,000 are housed," said J. Stephen Cleghorn of the District-based Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, who leads the annual study. While those in permanent settings continue to rely upon the homeless system for support,"we have essentially ended the homelessness of more than 3,000 people with serious disabilities," Cleghorn said.

In future years, the District and its suburbs will try to bring more people into the ranks of "permanently supported homeless," in concert with a federal government initiative that aims to end chronic homelessness by 2012.

The COG report counted 2,234 chronically homeless people who would be candidates for such supportive housing, many of them mentally ill, addicted to drugs or dealing with other disabilities. Those people are using about half the region's emergency shelter spaces and other resources, which cannot properly address their problems, Cleghorn said.

"Adding 2,200 more units of housing -- this is a doable fight," he said. "We could meet the objective of ending chronic homelessness by 2012."

Such programs combine housing with social services needed to address mental illness, addiction and other problems that often lead to long-term homelessness. By getting the chronically homeless into these programs, policymakers can save money and free up space in the overburdened emergency shelter system for families and working poor people who are temporarily homeless.

The idea is catching on in the region. In the District, a new Pathways to Housing program is being launched that offers housing and treatment to homeless people suffering from mental illness and or addiction. The program started in New York and serves 450 formerly homeless people there, founder Sam Tsemberis said.

"It's extremely cost-effective," he said. "Putting someone in an apartment with a team of clinicians on call costs about $20,000 a year. Putting someone in a shelter cot costs $25,000 to $30,000 a year," he said.

The District's program has accepted its first five residents, and "many more are in the pipeline," Tsemberis said.

The approach also influenced Montgomery County's decision to purchase a 97-room motel in Gaithersburg -- once used as emergency shelter for homeless families -- and transform it into supportive housing for families and singles. That project is scheduled to open later this month.

David Robertson, COG's executive director, said the group could help advocate for more resources. "The report shows that with COG's leadership, this goal is clearly within reach," he said in a statement.