Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Saturday marks the final day of the District’s second annual youth homeless census, a nine-day push to count residents under 25 who don’t have permanent housing—couch-surfing, staying at a shelter, or living on the streets.

In August 2015 the D.C. Department of Human Services and its partners counted more than 320 homeless youth, part of an effort to better assign resources for one of the city’s most vulnerable groups. More than two in five of those who participated in associated surveys identified as LGBTQ, with the vast majority aged 18 to 24 and residing in shelter or transitional housing. It’s unclear how many homeless youth D.C. will count this year, but outreach workers and experts say the issue hasn’t abated.

“It’s important to do a separate census because youth are really difficult to find,” says Kate Coventry, an analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who focuses on low-income residents. “For [the annual] point-in-time [count], some youth are afraid to report that they’re youth because they don’t want to end up back [under the care of child services].”

Surveyors say they have a better sense of “hot spots” around the District where homeless youth tend to gather and ways to get in touch with individuals than they did last year. Outreach workers establish rapport and then complete assessments that officials use to rank their vulnerability. According to Hilary Cairns, deputy administrator for youth programs at DHS, the agency had more time to prepare for the census this year, shifting more outreach to evenings. The census is being conducted in September as opposed to August this year in part to cull information from schools, which can pick up signs that a particular student is homeless. She adds that more developed drop-in centers are helping, too.

Whereas the 2015 census results were released in January of this year, DHS plans for the 2016 results to come out sooner. Staff from Friendship Place, a Tenleytown-based anti-homelessness organization doing outreach, say they’ve engaged with a surprising number of youth younger than 18 over the past eight days, about half—if not most—of whom identified as LGBTQ. It usually takes a few times for youth to feel comfortable sharing personal information about themselves, sometimes because of trust issues with adults. “It’s building that relationship and meeting them where they are,” outreach worker Tony Smith says. “If you’re not honest and consistent with young people … they don’t want to deal with you. That’s probably the biggest challenge.”

His colleague Domonique Hinson recounts meeting a transgender girl who initially didn’t want to participate in the census, but because her friend did so, she went along. The survey asks for a youth’s preferred rather than birth name, Hinson says. “She gave me a hug,” she says. “That girl, probably all she wanted was someone to just listen or treat her with kindness.”

Some of the questions included on the official survey include: “Are you responsible for others?” “Where did you sleep last night?” “How long have you been staying there?” and whether youth have experienced substance abuse or other health issues.

“We want this to be an accurate count,” Cairns says. “Ultimately, this is what’s going to be guiding how we spend our money.”

More information about the census can be found here.