Ron Schlueter, a retired social studies teacher, braved the elements on Jan. 24. It happened to be a barely-above-zero day.
The Brooklyn Park resident was among a small bundled-up group who ventured into woodsy areas and parks and along railroad tracks in Anoka County, volunteering as part of the county's annual homeless count.
Even though Schlueter was in familiar territory, "I had no idea those were sites where homeless people are known to camp out," he said.
"It was an eye-opener for me."
The county uses the "point in time" survey results to tailor its response to rising suburban homelessness and to apply for related state and federal funding.
Kristina Hayes, who coordinated the volunteer effort through the Anoka County Continuum of Care, a homeless planning group, said the count provides insight into "what trends or changes are happening so agencies can better target programs and services," she said.
Separately, as a part of the survey, homeless service providers, food shelves, law enforcement agencies and schools in the area report on their homeless populations, as well, she said.
Other jurisdictions throughout the state performed the count on the same day.
Hayes hopes to get the results tallied later this month.
Last year, the county's census found 1,463 people on the streets, a slight uptick from 2011.
Although Hayes couldn't guess what this year's count might say, "I don't think things have improved that much," she said.
One challenge, in terms of the count's accuracy, however, is the fact that it always falls within the last 10 days of January because of federal requirements. This time around, "I think some people slipped through the cracks in the count because of the cold weather," she said.
It's unclear where homeless people facing such extreme conditions find refuge, she said, especially in Anoka County, "where there is just the one homeless shelter" for adults, which is far from "the outdoors areas we typically see camps set up."
Unfortunately, the count doesn't register those who are out and about at nighttime, she said.
Going into the field
On the day of the count the 10 volunteers, who came from all walks of life, worked through a list of 20 spots where homeless people are known to gather. Dividing into several groups, the volunteers investigated local landmarks such as Northtown Mall in Blaine, the silos near the Rum River in Anoka and the parking lots of 24-hour stores.
For each homeless person, they filled out a one-page a questionnaire that asks about one's housing situation the night of Jan. 23.
The form also collects information about household size, age and gender, and whether the homeless person is a veteran, an ex-offender or struggling with a medical condition.
On that Thursday, with a temperature that hovered around 1 degree Fahrenheit, none of the volunteers encountered anyone hanging around outside, Hayes said.
Volunteers did stumble upon telling items, such as a sweatshirt and a sleeping bag, a bicycle buried under the snow, a makeshift lean-to tent, a pile of lumber and plenty of footprints.
In some cases, volunteers spoke to security guards or managers who were on hand to fill in the details.
A manager at the Denny's in Blaine, who asked not to be named, occasionally lets homeless people linger in the restaurant overnight, as long as they're not bothering anyone, he said.
Similarly, some local motels have become emergency shelters, in a way, for a number of homeless people, Hayes said.
Anecdotally, the survey showed that the woods tucked behind the Anoka-Ramsey Community College campus in Coon Rapids haven't had people setting up camp recently, but they have in the past. In those cases, they tend to get "evicted."
Similarly, Anoka Technical College in Anoka has seen a similar issue with tents in the woods, volunteers found.
An invisible problem
Tabitha Denison, a caseworker with the Salvation Army in Coon Rapids who led a volunteer group that day, said homelessness in the county is often invisible. "Homelessness looks different in Anoka County than it does in most people's minds."
That is, in the suburbs, unlike in the bigger cities, it's rare to "see people standing on the side of the road, begging for money," she said.
People often wind up sleeping in their cars or staying in motels for extended periods, she said.
Another volunteer leader, Casey Schleisman, a community program director at the Emma B. Howe Family YMCA in Coon Rapids, added that in the case of the increasing number of youth who are on the streets, "There's a lot of couch-hopping."
The county lacks a youth homeless shelter, though a new teen drop-in center called Hope 4 Youth plans to open at the Old Milk Factory in Anoka on Feb. 20. She said she's "hoping something comes out of that group."
Phil Henry, a Brooklyn Park resident, is working to get the center up and running. That's how he found out about the homeless count.
He joined in the volunteer shift that left from the YMCA at noon.
Henry, who previously worked as a youth counselor at a homeless shelter in Seattle, was struck that Thursday by "how many places someone could hole up if they had to," he said, adding, "It is just sad that they have to."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.