After more than an hour wandering the streets of Capitol Hill, the two volunteers took great interest in a heap of discarded blankets by Eastern Market.

“Hello!” they addressed the heap. “How are you doing tonight?”

There was no response.

“Is there anyone in there? We just want to make sure you’re doing OK.”

Still nothing.

One of the volunteers knocked on the lamppost near the center of the heap. There was no movement, so they gingerly lifted a couple of the mottled gray blankets, revealing a shoe and an old suitcase, but no humans. They moved on.

All across the country, this scene played out last night in various forms. One night a year, in order to count the number of homeless people in cities and states across the country, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sends out locally organized volunteers to do just that. The annual point-in-time count is an awkward and inefficient system for tabulating homeless populations: Volunteer error is likely high, and cold weather, like last night’s, can lead to under-counting as homeless residents seek refuge in hallways, shops, cars, and other hard-to-count spots or sleep on a friend or relative’s couch. But with no better way to track homelessness, it’s the most effective system we have, and supplies the closest thing to an official national count of homelessness.

Last January’s count found a 3.5 percent increase in total homelessness in the D.C. region over the previous year—-attributable almost entirely to a 13 percent jump in the District, as most other jurisdictions in the region saw declines. D.C. had 65 percent of the region’s homeless population, with 7,748 homeless residents, or 1.2 percent of the city’s total population.

This year’s numbers won’t be compiled and released until the spring, but there’s reason to think they could be even higher. The city expected family homelessness—-just one component of the total homeless population that also includes homeless individual adults and youth—-to rise 16 percent this winter over last winter. Already, the city is well beyond its family shelter capacity, and nearly 400 homeless families are being sheltered at motels for lack of traditional shelter space.

Which brings us back to the streets of Capitol Hill. The two volunteers tasked with canvassing nearly 20 blocks around Eastern Market—-two of about 350 volunteers to sign up for the count in D.C.—-spent two hours walking those streets. (They graciously allowed me to join them but requested that I not use their names.) They asked nearly everyone they saw if, by chance, he or she lacked a place to sleep. The answer was always no. One man, gesturing with his eyes at the gorgeous Victorian rowhouses, replied, “You’re on the Hill. You’re not going to find a lot of homeless people here.”

The closest they came was the heap of blankets.

And that’s good news. D.C. is one of a small handful of jurisdictions in America with a right to shelter—-a law that requires the city to shelter all homeless residents in need when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing. Last night, the thermometer hovered just below 30 degrees, with windchill bringing the temperature closer to 20. It was too cold for anyone to sleep outside, even if other volunteers did find a few shivering souls on the street. A lack of success in locating homeless residents meant a measure of success for the city’s shelter system.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery