City volunteers found an increase in homelessness after they descended on the streets of Madison late Wednesday night to attempt to obtain an accurate count of the number of homeless people living in the city as part of national efforts to quantify America’s homeless population.

Wednesday marked the start of a Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development venture to get a firm estimate about the number of homeless people in the community in 2013, according to Community Development Division Director Jim O’Keefe. 

The “point in time” count occurs twice a year, in January and July, and captures what the homeless population looks like on that particular day, he said.

O’Keefe highlighted numbers from previous years, noting an increasing overall trend in the population estimates.

In 2009 the number of sheltered homeless people was 588 and the number of unsheltered was 54, he said. In 2012, Madison had 659 sheltered people and 77 unsheltered persons.

Resnick cited several major changes that have occurred with homelessness in the past year that could affect the outcome of this year’s count.

The Capitol no longer accepts homeless people spending the night, and the Madison Central Library, which used to provide shelter, is currently under construction, he said. 

Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, said evaluating the homeless population in this way is critical to finding a solution. 

“Anytime you’re dealing with an at-risk population it’s always important to know how many people you are dealing with,” Resnick said. 

O’Keefe said the department wanted to get as good of an estimate as possible to understand the scale and scope of the problem. The department dispatched teams of volunteers to all parts of the city in search of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons, according to O’Keefe.

To be classified as sheltered, a person must be living in emergency sheltered facilities, while an unsheltered person lives in a place not suitable for human habitation, such as a campground or an automobile, O’Keefe said.

The volunteers also interviewed the homeless people they found, asking them questions about their background and what might have contributed to their situation, O’Keefe said. Background information might prove useful for developing services that can help these people, he said.

“It is helpful to get information about persons who are homeless and the personal challenges they are facing,” O’Keefe said. “It is helpful for us in figuring out how to respond to those needs.”

Resnick said having an accurate count of the homeless population allows the city to better allocate funding to the programs and services the population needs.

O’Keefe said their methods also help to systematically quantify the scale of the problem.

The volunteers included workers from outreach organizations such as Porchlight Inc., Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin and the Department of Veterans Affairs, O’Keefe said.

The operators of existing shelters and churches also counted the number of people in their facilities to add to the estimate, according to O’Keefe.

According to O’Keefe, the venture is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Madison is not the only community undertaking this task in the state of Wisconsin, and other communities in other states are also engaged in the same types of efforts, he said.