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Counting the Invisible 

by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pokane County social service agencies will conduct a state-mandated "One Day Count" of the homeless Thursday. At Spokane's Hope House shelter, the women who stay Thursday night will be asked to fill out a special form before they bed down for the night.

"It contains all of those 'I-answer-these-all-the-time' questions," program director Rusty Barnett says. "We want to know where the women stayed last night, what kinds of services they've accessed, whether they have children -- several things."

The questionnaire represents the state's attempt to accurately count Washington's homeless population. Lawmakers in 2005 established a state homeless housing program and mandated a yearly census. Thursday has been designated census day; social service providers in all Washington cities will have their homeless clients fill out paperwork.

"We get some very useful demographic information," says Amy Jones from the Spokane city Human Services Department. "We use that information when we apply for federal homeless program money. We use it when we talk to state legislators."

During last year's inaugural census, Spokane homeless advocates interviewed about 2,200 people, a number Jones acknowledges is far below the actual number of homeless. "It's hard to count people who aren't out on the street, who stay in other people's homes."

According to the city's most recent "Continuum of Care Plan for the Homeless," 6,024 people received services in the city of Spokane during 2005 -- 1,268 fewer than the year before. The report states city officials aren't clear whether that means a real drop in the number of homeless people or whether other factors are involved, such as changes in how people are counted or served.

State officials have vowed to reduce the number of homeless by 50 percent within 10 years. Cities and counties are required to reach the same goal and create their own 10-year plans.

To help, the legislature, in the 2005 law, created a dedicated funding source for homeless programs, a $10 surcharge on real estate transactions. That generated $650,000 for Spokane in 2006. The money was divided among 14 local agencies, including the House of Charity. "We'll use that to keep our shelter open longer into the year than we've been able to," says case manager Rhonda Allen.

Although Thursday's count is mandated by the state, Rusty Barnett at Hope House thinks it's a valuable exercise. "I wish we did it more often," she says. "It really helps us define the services our clients need."
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