Baltimore County's homeless survey first asks for a name, but it makes that answer optional. The second question is, "Where did you spend last night?"
Replies, which often came in hushed tones Thursday as the one-day survey was conducted, included a shelter, a hospital emergency room, a tent in the woods, a doorway, a friend's sofa and a car.
"I ride the transit buses to stay warm at night," said Frank A. Sollenberger Jr., 28, homeless since June. He lost all his belongings in an eviction and has been unable to find a job. He took the survey at the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, which served about 18,000 needy last year, many of them homeless.
"We are asking everyone to complete the survey," said Maria Wetherington, the center's assistant director. "Many in this county don't think homelessness is a problem, but we see large groups of homeless here."
County workers and about 40 trained volunteers crisscrossed the area from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. stopping at the places where homeless are known to congregate. They went in teams to shelters, soup kitchens and encampments to gather information in what many said was a hit-or-miss operation.
Two hours into the day, volunteer Carol Anders had located only one homeless man, near a fast-food restaurant. But she was impressed by how many people expressed their compassion for the homeless as she searched.
Everyone I spoke to is concerned about the homeless, and many of them knew of a homeless person," she said.
The desire for anonymity complicates the task, said James Frye, 62, whose home for the past four years has been two tents in a wooded area near Towson.
"A lot of homeless don't want to be found," said Frye, who volunteered to assist in the survey. "And a lot don't want to talk to anybody."
Frye works two days a week at the Prologue outreach center for the homeless in Towson. He encouraged those at the center to answer the questions. He gave those he found on the streets directions to the shelter and promised them a hot meal, whether or not they filled out the survey.
On Thursday, Frye searched downtown Towson — including several bus stops, the library and other spots where he knew that people sometimes spend the night. He didn't find anybody at first, but finally met some willing subjects at the assistance center.
"If we all participate in this survey, we will get services in return," he said. "We need the numbers so we can get funding."
The count and the results tallied from answers to 26 questions help the county secure money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for transitional housing programs, outreach centers, havens from domestic violence and shelters for families and singles.
Baltimore County's survey is one of several that area governments must conduct by the end of this month to keep those federal housing funds.
Joseph Lambert, 27, has endured bouts of homelessness since he was an abandoned 13-year-old who ran away from foster homes. He works at a minimum-wage job and sleeps in a vacant, unheated house. Sometimes he "flies a sign" at a busy intersection and asks for handouts.
"I am getting tired of struggling," he said.
Francis Buckingham, 50, has lived at an east-side shelter since he was released from prison in November after serving 19 months on an assault charge.
"I have never been in a shelter before," he told the surveyor. "Every day I am in unchartered waters, but I am trying to rebuild my life."
Anthony Marable, 58, a disabled retiree, declined to fill out the survey while at the Towson assistance center. But he promised to do so later in the city.
"I might be poor but I have principles," he said. "I will fill out the survey in the city, where I spend most of my time. A lot of us out here are homeless, but we ain't all bad."
Baltimore County's homeless numbers jumped by nearly 25 percent in the last count, according to the 2010 survey, with more than a third of the 890 people counted saying they were homeless for the first time. Preliminary numbers Thursday suggested a slight decline, but it will be weeks before the information is tallied, said Sue Bull, the county's homeless coordinator.
"A lot of the encampments we found last year appear to be abandoned," she said. "That could be a good sign, but we still have a long way to go."
On any given day, 550 men, women and children are living in one of Baltimore County's homeless shelters, officials say. Counselors receive an average of 40 calls daily from those asking for beds. Hundreds are living on county streets, and nearly 2,000 homeless children attended county schools last year. The county has begun work on a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Geographically, volunteers face a daunting task, but milder weather Thursday made the job a little easier, Bull said. She concentrated much of her efforts in the eastern end of the county, where nearly 40 percent of the homeless were last year. She also asked soup kitchens in Essex, Dundalk and Rosedale to encourage people to fill out the survey.
"This is a tough count no matter what, but it gives us a good idea of what we are dealing with," Bull said.