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Long Island

Volunteers take annual census count of LI's homeless

Julee King and Greta Guarton had been searching for the homeless all afternoon, trudging through the woods of Selden, Centereach and Coram, where people were known to sleep outside.

By late afternoon, they'd found several vacant encampments but not one person they could count.

"This is kind of a wild-goose chase," said Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless.

In all, after eight hours of searching for the annual census of the area's "unsheltered" homeless population, Guarton and King found only one person on Wednesday whom they could officially count.

Census results were not available Thursday, but Guarton and King's experience highlights the frustration some Long Island homeless advocates have with the homeless census, an annual ritual all but required by the federal government.

Since 2005, Long Island's homeless census has never found more than 304 people who live outside, though advocates believe, based on experience, there are actually more than 1,000.

VIDEO: Click here to see how groups fan out across Long Island to count the homeless

"We are getting an undercount, and an undercount is not useful," said Marge Rogatz, president of Community Advocates, a Port Washington housing nonprofit, and chairman of Nassau's 10-year plan to end homelessness. Conducting the census plays an important role in obtaining federal homeless housing and prevention money, $17 million of which has flowed into Long Island in the last two years. Though the census is technically not required for the funding, federal officials said communities that don't perform them at least once every two years rarely - if ever - get funded.

This year's census of the unsheltered comes as the region's homeless shelter system has more people than it can handle. More than 2,000 - 614 in Nassau and 1,420 in Suffolk - are in homeless shelters or motels this month, county officials said.

Taken each year during the last week of January, the census occurs over only one day to avoid counting one person twice; dozens of volunteers conducted the search on Monday in Nassau and Wednesday in Suffolk, organized by the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless.

Once compiled, the numbers will be combined with adjusted figures from homeless shelters and submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which produces a congressional report. The problem, homeless advocates said, is that the census numbers are inaccurate. HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said: "This is not a perfect science. But we're doing better than we've ever done it before."

King and Guarton acknowledge the flaws but consider it necessary for funding. As they scoured Suffolk Wednesday, they first found three men they couldn't count. Two declined interviews, while a third said he would be in a county shelter later.

Later, they found a small encampment between two fences separating property behind a shopping center in Selden. Several blankets were laid over a mattress, but no one was there.

A flood of of homeless in LI's shelter system

As volunteers tried to count the homeless who live outside, Long Island's homeless shelter system was flooded past capacity, county officials said.

SUFFOLK

Shelter capacity

295 families

240 single adults

Actual homeless

(as of Monday)

1,420

367 families

comprising 1,196

individuals

224 single adults

(62 families in motels)

NASSAU

Shelter capacity

175 to 200 families

65 to 75 single adults

Actual homeless

(as of Jan. 15)

614

108 families

comprising 371 individuals

243 single adults

(16 families in motels)

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