Volunteers with clipboards and questionnaires comb Baltimore's streets and shelters, hoping to gain an accurate count of the city's homeless population.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bundled in a pink quilt, Janet Merritt was one of the first homeless people to be counted as part of Baltimore's 2005 homeless census yesterday. She sleeps in the doorway of a Cathedral Street building where volunteers gathered at 5:30 a.m. to begin the count.

A census worker asked Merritt how long she'd been homeless and where she spends the night. The 48-year-old said she'd been living on the street for about seven years and spent nights in the doorway for about three of them. "I feel safe here," she said.

She shares the doorway with another woman, Alice, who also was interviewed before shuffling out into the snow and sleet shortly past 6 a.m. Merritt said they look out for each other.

Merritt said she was "tickled" that the city was trying to get a better count of homeless people living on the street, under bridges and in shelters. The survey is not precise, as sometimes it involves counting people who are spotted but not approachable, but it is important to the city when it applies for grants that pay for programs to help the homeless.

"Hopefully, with a number in hand, they will approve the proper funding," said Merritt, a former clerical worker who says she won't stay in shelters because they are unsafe and dirty.

She said she feels like Rip Van Winkle, the fictional character who slept for 20 years and awoke an old man.

"I feel like my life is passing me by," she said, eyes barely visible from inside the folds of her quilt.

Although some volunteers skipped the census because of snow and cold weather, organizers called the count a success. Originally scheduled for Jan. 23, it was rescheduled because of a snowstorm.

Even though it started to snow Saturday, organizers decided to go ahead with the count.

The first city census was done in April 2003. It counted 2,600 homeless people, but social workers and advocates say there might be hundreds more.

This time, organizers said they wanted to be more exact, which is why they spent more time looking for homeless people in out-of-the-way encampments.

The results of the 2005 census will be reported in about two months, said Laura Gillis, president and chief executive officer of Baltimore Homeless Services Inc., a nonprofit arm of the city Health Department.

The census ended at 10 p.m.

Helping with the event was the Center for Poverty Solutions. Volunteers, many of them formerly homeless, met at the center's North Charles Street offices throughout the day for sandwiches and soda and to warm up from the cold.

Volunteer Julio Velez, who described himself as "semi-homeless," started his day before dawn. He and about six other volunteers, most of them homeless men who work as day laborers, drove to Riverside Baptist Church on Johnson Street to talk to homeless people who gather there about 6:30 a.m. Sundays to eat breakfast.

"I never forgot where I came from," said Velez, standing in the snow in front of the church, a long line of bundled figures behind him. "That's why I'm here."

Velez and the other volunteers, clipboards and questionnaires in hand, worked the line of homeless people outside the Formstone church and then moved inside to a hall where men and a few women sat at folding tables and ate plates of scrambled eggs and sausage.

Some inside didn't want to participate in the census because they were eating. Others said they were worried about their privacy. Volunteers told them they didn't need to give their name. For some, it was still not enough, and they refused to answer questions. They were counted, however.

Danny Ray Davis, 51, was willing to participate. He told volunteers that he'd been homeless for about 2 1/2 years "this time," but that he also had been homeless from 1992 to 1996. He said he works two days a week as a laborer and is trying to get medical aid for ailments that include arthritis and hepatitis C.

Besides the church, volunteers and social workers rode the city's Metro system and visited libraries, shelters and soup kitchens looking for people to count. They also searched along Falls Road and under the Jones Falls Expressway, both of which are popular with homeless people.

Karen Powell, outreach manager for Baltimore Homeless Services, looked for homeless people under the Howard Street bridge on Falls Road about 5:30 p.m. last night.

"Hello? Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?" she called out into the darkness. No one answered.

At another stop, this time on Guilford Avenue near the Baltimore Detention Center, Powell used a flashlight to spot a solitary figure huddled under a ramp of the JFX. The person was too far away to interview but at least was counted.

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