Jules Tchoujan, left, and Michelle Gardner-Ince, right, both with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, conduct a survey with homeless couple Nikia Johnson, 22, and Timothy Brown, 36, near Union Station in Washington on Jan. 25 during the annual “Point in Time” survey. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

As volunteers approached the two figures huddled under blankets near Union Station early Thursday morning, Timothy Brown's muted voice called out: "I'm cold, I'm hungry."

Brown, 36, and his girlfriend Nikia Johnson, 22, chose to sleep on the street as temperatures dipped below freezing because they worried about being robbed in the District's emergency shelters, which they said are dirty, unsafe and bedbug-infested.

Brown and Johnson, who poked their heads out from under their blankets as they spoke, were among the District's homeless residents counted as part of the nationwide annual "Point in Time" survey that uses a snapshot in time to estimate the U.S. homeless population.

The survey, which took place Wednesday night, includes people in D.C. shelters, transitional housing programs and those living on the street. The results ­— to be released in May — will be an important benchmark for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser's administration, which has touted its strategy to make homelessness "rare, brief and nonrecurring."

"We set out three years ago with what some people thought was an impossible goal: to end homelessness in our city," said Bowser, a Democrat, as she addressed about 300 volunteers gathered to help with the count. "The work sometimes seems impossible and like we're never nearing an end, but what we do see is that we're driving down the number of people who are coming into our homeless services system."

The number of homeless people in the District declined 11 percent from 2016 to 2017, driven by reductions in the number of homeless families, according to last year's Point in Time count. And 3,300 individuals have been housed as part of Bowser's plan, some of whom "have been on the streets for decades," said Kristy Greenwalt, director of the District's Interagency Council on Homelessness.

But the city's homeless population of 7,473 remained higher in 2017 than it was in 2015 — Bowser's first year in office — and increased 7.4 percent from 2012. The nationwide count, which is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is organized in the District by the Community Partnership for the Prevention Of Homelessness.

Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said she would not be surprised by either a slight increase or slight decrease in the number of homeless people in the District this year.

"You're seeing the continuing affordable-housing crisis and wages not keeping up," Coventry said. "We're making progress, but we need more investments in affordable housing."

During last year's count, when the weather was unseasonably warm, volunteers tallied 897 unsheltered people — nearly triple the 318 recorded in 2016. The number will probably be down again this year because of the cold, said Lara Pukatch, director of advocacy at Miriam's Kitchen, a nonprofit group working to end chronic homelessness.

"A lot of what we're doing as a city is working," Pukatch said, citing better data collection, and government agencies and providers working together to connect people with housing. "But the reality is that our city is getting more and more unaffordable. That increases the likelihood of folks falling into homelessness, and makes it harder for them to exit homelessness."

Brown, who said he struggles with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, expressed little confidence the D.C. government would provide housing or other assistance to him or Johnson.

"I don't have a form of identification, and they make you jump though hoops," said Brown, who used to cut hair for money until his hair clippers were stolen in a shelter. He and Johnson, who have been dating for five years, previously lived in a tent in the L Street NE underpass. But they said their tent was taken this past summer by D.C. officials during an encampment cleanup, which some advocates say are the government's attempts to keep the homeless out of sight.

"They took our tent, but they didn't give us an apartment," Brown said.

People who live on the street have a life span that is an average 25 years shorter than the rest of the population, said Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy specialist at Miriam's Kitchen. Rabinowitz said an estimated 45 people who lived on the street died in 2017.

"People who are living outside cannot afford to wait," said Rabinowitz, who added that the city has made progress in addressing homelessness but should continue increasing investments in affordable housing.

Bowser announced Sunday that by the end of the year, homeless families will no longer be housed at the troubled megashelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, which Bowser promised to close after the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd in 2014.

But construction of the eight smaller facilities that will replace D.C. General will not be finished by the year's end, meaning the city will need to expand its use of motels to house homeless families if there are not enough landlords willing to rent to residents with temporary vouchers, administration officials said.

Asked whether she was worried about a possible gap in housing for homeless families before all eight shelters open, Bowser, who is running for reelection this year, said "I am concerned about closing D.C. General and putting families in a safer situation. And we're ready to do that."