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Counting Arlington's homeless population one by one

Thursday - 1/30/2014, 5:26pm  ET

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A homeless encampment near 15th Street and I-395 just outside Pentagon City includes blankets, sleeping bags, shopping carts and personal accouterments. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

WASHINGTON -- The snow crunched underfoot as volunteers carrying flashlights shimmied their way through a small opening in a chain link fence separating Crystal City from the Virginia Railway Express tracks.

One by one, they negotiated an icy incline and crossed the tracks onto a makeshift trail leading to a homeless encampment.

A snowy mattress marked the entrance. Tattered sweatshirts hung frozen on a clothesline, and leftover trash hinted at what used to be there.

"Hello!" calls David Ordoņez, senior homeless outreach worker for Arlington Street People's Assistance Network (A-SPAN).

No one answered.

"I've seen up to five tents back here," he says.

"They were very resourceful with what they had here. They were using this area back here to wash their plates," Ordoņez adds, pointing to a small clearing.

The California native joined volunteers and members of A-SPAN, Arlington County Department of Human Services and other local non-profits for the 14th annual Point-in-Time homeless count Wednesday night.

Seven teams of 12 people fanned out across the county, surveying wooded areas, streets and parks where homeless people tend to gather. The county will tally those numbers and combine them with head counts from area shelters.

"The Point-in-Time Count gives us an important snapshot of people who are homeless in the community," says Susanne Eisner, director of the Arlington County Department of Human Services, in a statement.

"This is an important night that complements the efforts of the organizations and individuals working year-round to help these people in need, connect them with resources, and get them on the path to stable housing."

The data collected Wednesday night helps Arlington achieve its "10 Year Plan to End Homelessness," Eisner says.

Launched in 2008, the plan emphasizes a housing first model and focuses on preventing homelessness, moving people who do become homeless into housing and providing services necessary for them to maintain their housing.

In the three years Ordoņez has been participating in the Point-in-Time count, he says he's seen it all.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," he says. "You're dealing with individuals that are having problems with substance abuse, mental health issues and just people, in general, who have lost their jobs."

Ordoņez says volunteers and newcomers to the social services world don't often expect to meet homeless people who went to college or maintained professional careers before falling into difficult circumstances. But it's not uncommon to see a homeless man in a suit, he says, adding that some people who sleep in airports and train stations try to blend in with commuters.

"Some of them had homes, they had families, and they just gave up on life and decided to live out on the street," Ordoņez says.

About half way through his Point-in-Time shift, Ordoņez encounters a man sitting near the Air Force Memorial. He is holding a small sign and squatting on the ground. Ordoņez and a volunteer jump out of the A-SPAN van, homeless survey at the ready. The questionnaire is filled with inquiries about a person's history, mental health and other factors that could have led to his or her present situation.

If the person is willing, they will be connected to the appropriated services.

Ordoņez and the volunteer spend about 10 minutes with this man, who calls himself Guy Williams. Williams says he comes from a "rich family" and lives out of his car. He is not disabled, however, and therefore does not meet some organizations' definition of chronically homeless.

Ordoņez tells the volunteer to fill out the questionnaire accordingly, and to not worry about classifications.

"On a night like this, they just need a place to sleep," he says.

Watch Ordoņez and his team explore an encampment in the video below:

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