The dense underbrush under trees in Columbia Park didn't indicate anyone had been using the area as a temporary home.
Christina Canida of Kennewick looked for signs of footprints in the patches of ice and snow that covered the mostly dry grasses. She and Steve Gaulke of Richland, another volunteer for Thursday's one-day homeless count, had been told some people might be camping out in Kennewick near Clover Island.
So they looked along the Sacagawea Heritage Trail and in covered places that looked somewhat protected from the winter weather.
While they found no evidence of human habitation, they did spot bowls of cat food and water someone had left under two park benches.
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Gaulke, who has helped count homeless for a decade, said the difficult part of the homeless count is finding the homeless during the day.
For a homeless person to be counted, he or she has to answer a seven-question survey and sign it.
The annual count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and survey results are used to identify what services a community needs.
About 60 red-shirted volunteers tried Thursday to find homeless people in Benton and Franklin counties who were willing to fill out a survey about their living situation. They were stationed at locations throughout the Tri-Cities, including libraries, Grace Clinic, Tri-Cities Community Health and food banks. Others, like Gaulke and Canida, were traveling around the community, looking for homeless at bus transfer stations, in parks and laundromats.
Volunteers also went to the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission to survey those sleeping at the shelters, and volunteers at the county jails also surveyed anyone who was homeless before being arrested or would be homeless when they were released.
Gaulke said they found 11 men early Thursday morning who were willing to answer the survey outside of Labor Ready in Kennewick. Some were staying with family members, while others were living in their cars.
One man was sleeping in an uninsulated trailer that didn't have running water, which, according to the survey, is considered homeless, Gaulke said.
Most of the men were in their 40s and said they had either been laid off or suffered from a disabling condition.
The one-day count was a little different this year, with volunteers going to some new places, such as WorkSource Columbia Basin, said Tracy Diaz, deputy administrator of the bicounty Department of Human Services.
The department ran the count this year, instead of contracting with Community Action Connections, or CAC. Diaz said it wanted to try a new approach, including saturating the community with volunteers. They also talked to police officers and others to determine places where homeless people have been known to congregate, she said.
Last year, CAC had difficulty finding volunteers, which officials said skewed the results. Last January, 166 people were counted who were homeless in Benton and Franklin counties, and another 287 were temporarily living with family or friends, according to the state Department of Commerce. In 2010, 433 homeless people were counted, and another 183 were temporarily living with family or friends. That was up from 2009, when 381 homeless people were counted and 219 others were temporarily living with family or friends.
The data acts as a snapshot and is used locally to help determine how to apply available funding, Diaz said. It also is used when applying for grants.
The state also is using the count, which started in 2005, to measure whether the goal of reducing homelessness by 50 percent by 2015 is met, Diaz said.
The Department of Commerce compiles the results. Diaz said she hopes those will be ready in about 30 days.