The one-day census is also intended to help service agencies learn where there are gaps in assistance programs.
"This is a census of the homeless that records their experiences and reaches out to determine their needs," said Sue Bull, Baltimore County's homeless coordinator.
Information from the counts takes about a month to compile and will be used in applications for federal and state grants that fund programs to prevent homelessness and assist those without shelter. Counties survey those who stay in homeless shelters as well as all they can find on the streets or in encampments.
Baltimore County has trained about 45 volunteers to assist staff members with the count. They are targeting areas in Dundalk, Essex, Cockeysville, Towson and Catonsville from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday.
"It all depends on the weather," Bull said. "If it's a warmer day, we will find more homeless. But no matter what, this is just a snapshot. We won't get the whole picture."
Cold weather adds to the crisis for homeless people, who face even more challenges at the end of each month, when assistance money has often run out. Baltimore County fills its 550 available shelter beds daily and makes dozens more spaces available when temperatures drop below freezing.
Harford County created four teams, each with six volunteers, who counted and interviewed homeless people Wednesday evening in an effort to gather information.
"The night hours give us a more accurate count," said Sharon Lipford, deputy director of Harford's community services. "But this is not just a count. We see this as an opportunity to reach out to our homeless."
Many volunteers have worked with the homeless and are familiar with gathering areas in Aberdeen, Bel Air, Edgewood and Havre de Grace. They handed out coats, blankets, hygiene kits, bus passes and gift cards from a fast-food restaurant. They hoped to find answers to questions on each person's circumstances, needs and medical problems, Lipford said. They have often found that the homeless have migrated to the county by way of the Interstate 95 and U.S. 40 corridors.
Harford operates 12 emergency, transitional and permanent shelters for its homeless population, which grew from 152 in 2009 to 243 last year. The 2011 count showed that most of the homeless people were using the county's shelters, but 13 of the 243 were found on the street. This month, two homeless people died in a tent pitched in a remote area of Aberdeen. The incident is under investigation.
"That increased homeless population reflects a nationwide trend," Lipford said.
Since the federal government requires a comprehensive count only every other year, Baltimore will limit its point-in-time census to those in its shelters, said Kate Briddell, director of the city's homeless services program. The more extensive 2011 census, which will be repeated in 2013, found 4,088 homeless people living in shelters and on the streets. The city also gathers statistics monthly on the numbers using its shelter.
"All these counts help us determine where our needs are," Briddell said.