A yearlong study has found nearly 300 fewer homeless people in Howard County than county officials had estimated during an emergency summit last fall.
The report also found that of the 426 homeless people served in the three county shelter programs from last September through August, at least 135 were women and their children fleeing domestic violence.
The new tracking system may serve its purpose by providing data to better distribute services, but some advocates for the poor say they already knew the problem was not as severe as was reported a year ago, when the Department of Citizen Services estimated there were 700 homeless people in the county.
"I said all along, and I maintain, that the homeless problem is not what it is portrayed to be," said Dorothy Moore executive director of the nonprofit, Columbia-based Community Action Council. "We just don't see those numbers. We don't see those many people."
Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, one of the county's primary shelter organizations, criticized the tracking system, saying it doesn't count all homeless people, especially those who might be staying with friend or relatives and have never received services.
"There are people who are homeless who never look for services," Ms. Ingram said. "It's an impossible population to define."
Ms. Ingram said the tracking system does not include the nearly 400 people who were turned away at the county's shelters because of lack of space during the period that was studied.
County officials were unable to provide the number of homeless people counted by the system during May.
Manus O'Donnell, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, which oversees the county's programs for the poor and homeless, agreed with Ms. Ingram, saying it is difficult to find Howard County's homeless people because they are different from the homeless in some inner cities.
"Our typical homeless case is not an individual stereotype bag man or bag lady," Mr. O'Donnell said. "It's generally a family-type situation with a woman and children.
"The numbers from the tracking system, these are how many people who were served," he said. "The number of people who are homeless could be different."
Concerned that the county's homeless problem was outgrowing social service agencies' ability to provide service, advocates for the homeless prodded County Executive Charles I. Ecker to organize a summit meeting last year.
More than 100 social service professionals and advocates for the needy gathered in October, proposing that the county establish a centralized agency to coordinate all homeless services, renovate a building to use as an emergency shelter and offer more affordable housing.
The only recommendation that has been implemented is the tracking system. Mr. Ecker said he is awaiting recommendations from the county's board on homelessness before taking any action.
"It's as if this issue was very prominent during that month, but during the rest of the year, everybody forgot about it," said Terrence Farrell, president of the board of directors of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County. "Nobody is sitting down and taking a leadership role in this."
On Sept. 15, the Domestic Violence Center used a portion of a $700,000 grant from United Way of Central Maryland and the state Department of Human Resources to open its sixth shelter, bringing its total to 42 beds.
Grassroots is seeking money from the U.S. Department of Urban Development to open a 12-bed shelter for single men.
The county already maintains about 100 beds in emergency and long-term shelters at Grassroots, the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County and Churches Concerned for the Homeless.