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Volunteers Comb Streets, Woods for Annual Count of Arlington's Homeless

Snapshot of area homelessness has decreased over the past three years.

A team of about 30 volunteers combed the streets and woods of Arlington on Wednesday to survey the county's homeless population.

It's a census of sorts, conducted annually by the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network, or A-SPAN, and other agencies that serve the homeless. The Point-in-Time Count, as it is called, provides a snapshot of the area's homeless population on a single day.

"For us, it's like a thermometer," said Anita Friedman, Arlington County's economic independence division chief.

The 2012 Point-in-Time Count showed 451 homeless people in Arlington County — a 14 percent decrease over the past three years.

The volunteers visited Metro stations, malls, bridges and wooded areas, targeting hotspots of homeless activity, some of which has was mapped out leading up to the 100 Homes Campaign.

Central United Methodist Church in Ballston, which already offers drop-in meals on Fridays, let A-SPAN use its space Wednesday to provide lunch to homeless people. The meal would draw people in, at which point volunteers would survey those who hadn't already done so.

Volunteers started as early as 4:30 a.m., though once the sun came up, people began to scatter. Homeless encampments would be found empty. So teams were set to return to those areas Wednesday night and also hit Metro stations again.

In October 2011, during the 100 Homes Campaign, volunteers counted about 20 homeless people one morning at the Rosslyn Metro Station alone, said A-SPAN Development Director Jan-Michael Sacharko. Many aren't noticeable to people rushing to catch a train or staring at their smartphone.

"Go through again and look," Sacharko said. "Any place where you can hide someone, there's someone hiding."

A-SPAN and others rely on relationships they've built with people on the street; many homeless people distrust institutions. Volunteers will build a relationship with one person, who will then help spread goodwill for the organization and point them in the direction of others.

"People look out for one another," Sacharko said. One man who lives in a Rosslyn encampment was particularly helpful Wednesday in introducing volunteers to other area homeless who may need help.

In all, about 100 staff members and volunteers across several agencies — including Doorways for Women and Families and the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless — participated in Wednesday's count, Sacharko said. The survey inventories basic demographic information, along with housing needs, income and where people lived before becoming homeless.

When they were able, staff and volunteers collected information for the county's vulnerability index, which helps prioritize who gets moved into permanent supportive housing first. The index is more intensive, and keeps track of mental and physical health issues, age and criminal history, among other things. 

"I didn't realize how many people were homeless in Arlington," said Lauren Johnston, a Georgetown University nursing student who volunteered Wednesday. "When you look for a problem, you're better able to recognize it."

The Point-in-Time Count is held throughout the region each year during the last 10 days of January. 

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments will collect all of the data, sort through it and remove any duplicated information, and release a final report on the information, likely in March.

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