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The homeless get counted

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Perhaps not with pride, but with a certain dignity, Dane Blythe crawled out of his tent in late January and got counted in the second national count of the chronically homeless.

After 31 years living in the outdoors, Mr. Blythe, a ditch digger, is the picture of America's seemingly intractable homeless problem. Sometimes, he says, he questions his vagabond lifestyle. Other times he values its freedom.

"I'm like anybody else," he said during an interview last week.

In rickety encampments from Los Angeles to here in Garner, N.C., an estimated 800,000 homeless hunker on the fringes of cities and towns, often struggling with poverty, mental illness, or addiction. This year's count, judging from early indications, will show that a government-led race to end chronic homelessness by 2011 is far off the pace.

Despite criticisms of its accuracy and methodology, the US-mandated National Point-in-Time Survey is itself emblematic of innovative new efforts to bring America's most disaffected, disfranchised population in from the cold. To people like Blythe, the very fact that he has been seen and counted carries a measure of hope.

"The good part of the [snapshot survey] is that it's created a sense of movement, and both the private- and public-sector people are starting to say, 'Yeah, we need to do something,' " says Joel John Roberts, executive director of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) in Los Angeles and author of the satire "How to Increase Homelessness."

In more than 3,800 communities from Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles, volunteers in January peeked into culverts, looked under bridges, and trudged through the woods to find vagabond encampments and count the homeless. Because many homeless people try hard to keep a low profile, survey organizers sometimes resorted to the controversial practice of hiring homeless people as guides for $10 an hour. The task was made more difficult by safety rules that prohibit volunteers from entering private property or ducking down dark alleys. To be included in the federal count, a person must be homeless for a year or more, or have been homeless at least four times in the past three years.

Though the national count won't be released until 2008, officials in Wichita, Kan., reported the number of homeless had dropped from 589 last January to 526, though they couldn't cite why. Around Raleigh, N.C., the tally rose a bit, from 1,726 to 1,820. The survey showed that 1,300 children were homeless on one January day in Florida's Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

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