HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (right) interviews Willy Bowler in his makeshift shelter during the annual point-in-time count of the homeless, part of a nationwide survey coordinated by HUD, on Thursday in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Subtlety can be elusive for a Cabinet secretary walking along a sidewalk on Capitol Hill, shadowed by a security detail in a black GMC Yukon Denali with blue-and-red flashing lights.

It is particularly awkward when the Cabinet secretary is looking for homeless people to survey, as was the case Thursday night for Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development.

Donovan and Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who have formed a partnership combating veterans’ homelessness, hit the streets of Washington along with 180 other warmly dressed volunteers to conduct the annual point-in-time count, part of a nationwide survey coordinated by HUD.

After Donovan’s security detail blared a siren and yelled at a taxi driver who dared to try to turn onto Eighth Street SE as the entourage walked down Barracks Row, the HUD secretary issued orders for the SUV to follow at a greater distance.

“I thought the siren wouldn’t help to establish that level of trust that you need to talk to the homeless,” said Donovan, 47, who started working with the homeless back when he was a college student. Shinseki, 70, a Vietnam veteran himself, said he’s become a student of his younger colleague.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki addresses volunteers helping to count homeless citizens on the streets Thursday in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Despite the hoopla surrounding their participation, the Cabinet secretaries said walking the streets with volunteers is the best way for them to gauge their progress.

“I tell my staff, you can’t sit in Washington with a thousand-mile-long screwdriver and try to fine-tune everything,” Shinseki said. “I’m at the other end of the screwdriver now. This is where problems get solved.”

Some 430 local counts were conducted in more than 3,000 cities and counties around the country during the last 10 days of January. By using similar methodology each year, the numbers collected, while imperfect, provide an important baseline.

The teams had little problem finding the homeless Thursday night. After a brief training session with the secretaries and other volunteers at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Donovan’s team headed out at 10 p.m. and found two homeless men just outside the office entrance huddled under blankets. The temperature was 33 degrees.

Donovan asked about their homelessness history, medical conditions and employment status, scribbling the answers on a survey form attached to a clipboard.

The two men, Willie Watson and Brian Robinson, said they did not mind the personal questions. “It will make things better for us,” said Robinson, 54, who said he has been homeless for about five years.

The Krispy Kreme doughnuts, cartons of Starbucks coffee and $5 McDonald’s gift cards carried by volunteers also encouraged participation.

Donovan’s group also found three men under the awning of a medical clinic off Constitution Avenue, including Michael Williams, 54, who was wearing a green fatigue jacket and identified himself as a former Marine. He had been homeless for years, he said.

“We’ve got some Krispy Kreme doughnuts that will hit the spot, and some hot coffee,” VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould said.

Williams accepted the food, but like many chronic homeless, he was uninterested in further help, declining an offer to go to a shelter.

The count in January 2012 found 633,782 homeless persons nationally, a figure similar to 2011’s. But the numbers showed a 5.7 percent decrease since 2007.

The Obama administration has set a goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by 2015, and a coordinated effort by HUD and VA with programs targeted at the population have shown encouraging results. Last year’s count found 62,619 homeless veterans, representing a 17.2 percent decline since 2009.

Shinseki and Donovan said the point-in-time counts — and the detailed survey results they provide — have made a difference in the work.

“I learned a long time ago I couldn’t solve a problem I can’t see,” Shinseki told volunteers Thursday night at a Thomas Circle church. “You’ve got to get the numbers, and then you argue for the resources.”

Though a generation apart and from different backgrounds, Donovan, a lanky redheaded New Yorker, and Shinseki, a native Hawaiian and career Army officer, have formed a close working relationship. They confer at least once a month.

Donovan began volunteering in shelters while attending Harvard University. After graduating in 1987, he came to Washington to intern for the National Coalition for the Homeless. That was the start of a career that included an earlier stint at HUD during the Clinton administration and the job of commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Shinseki, who served as Army chief of staff during the invasion of Iraq, was participating in his first count. He described himself as “a relative newcomer to the homeless issue,” telling volunteers that he has been “learning at the knee” of Donovan since becoming VA secretary in 2009.

One step was to join with HUD in following a common methodology for tallying the numbers of homeless. “Their way of counting was better,” Shinseki said.

Moreover, VA orthodoxy held that homeless veterans needed to be successfully treated for mental health or substance abuse problems before they could get housing. Shinseki came around to the “housing first” movement advocated by HUD, which holds that the best way to treat such problems is first to place people in permanent supportive housing.

The two departments have launched a vigorous campaign to house homeless veterans using HUD Section 8 housing vouchers combined with support from VA case managers and medical care. More than 37,000 veterans have been housed using the program, known as HUD-VASH.

By the time it finished after midnight, Shinseki’s team, working around Union Station and the Library of Congress, found nine homeless, including two Vietnam veterans, while Donovan’s group, operating further to the east, located eight.

The total number of homeless found in the District will not be known for several months, and the national figures will not be released until December.

“I’d be disappointed if the numbers don’t drop,” Donovan said. “We’re making a huge amount of progress.”