Estelle Richman moved toward a lump of gray blankets on a park bench, wondering whether someone lay underneath.
“Helloooo?! Helloo,” she repeated, until a bald head emerged from the pile.
“Who are you?” the man asked, sounding confused.
Richman is the acting deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night with a co-worker and a homeless outreach worker who was carrying 96 ounces of coffee, all of them working together to count the people in the neighborhood who were sleeping on the streets.
Throughout the District, volunteers were doing the same. Across the country this week — the third week in January is typically the year’s coldest — volunteers are tiptoeing through alleys and their cities’ darkest corners to get a snapshot of the nation’s homeless population.
The search is a fundamental step for HUD. The department uses the data to determine how about $1.6 billion will be distributed to agencies working toward the national goal of eradicating homelessness for veterans, families and children by 2020.
HUD calls for such counts every two years, but the District does it annually, stopping at soup kitchens, shelters and transitional homes. But finding the unsheltered — some of whom have mental or substance abuse problems, many of whom reject the traditional support systems — can be the trickiest part.
Richman apologized to the man whose sleep she interrupted and calmly offered an incentive.
“We have some doughnuts and coffee,’’ she told the man, smiling.
“Well, I could use some coffee,’’ he gruffed.Temperatures hovered in the upper 30s.
The man, who asked that his name not be used, told Richman that he’s 38. Then he thought again, and said 45. He has been out here for a couple of months, but he couldn’t get more specific than that.
“Are you a vet?”
“Were you a foster kid?”
“Yes, I was. All my life. I never had a home.”
Yes, he was in prison for many years. Yes, he has HIV.
The group scribbles the notes on the clipboard. They thank him for his patience and his honesty. He thanks them for the doughnut.
In 2011, volunteers counted 305 unsheltered homeless people in the District, a 29 percent decrease from the previous year. The number of homeless living in shelters rose from 6,109 to 6,241.
There were competing guesses on how the numbers, which won’t be available until spring, will turn out this year. More money has been coming from the federal government to battle homelessness, so there might be fewer people outside. The District received $21 million alone this year. On the other hand, the winter has been mild, so more people might stay out.
There are always enclaves in the city where volunteers can expect to find street people, such as the area around Union Station. Before the night’s end, Dan Randazzo, an outreach worker for Capitol Hill Group Ministry, would check behind the parking lot of a Safeway and in a school playground. He’d walk next to a disheveled man patrolling up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, seemingly aimlessly. As it turned out, he wasn’t homeless. Just waiting to meet his wife.
Into Seward Square, where Richman found the man under the blankets. Into Folger Park, where the trio found no one. Behind Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, where a couple snuggled, with only blankets and bubble jackets separating them.
“We’ve been married only a few months,’’ Tamika Johnson, 30, told the searchers.
Tamika quit her job at the post office because she was unhappy with the pay. She and her husband, Chris Johnson, 39, could no longer live with her mother.
“We did finish school though,’’ he said. He graduated from Eastern High; she from H.D. Woodson.
The couple thanked the counters for asking their questions. They continued to cuddle in the shadows, flanked by two open 22-ounce cans of Steel Reserve.