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PORTLAND — A band of nearly 40 volunteers fanned out through ice-covered streets Tuesday night, searching for the city’s homeless as part of a national homeless headcount.

The federal Housing and Urban Development department requires all federally funded homeless service providers – like the City of Portland — to conduct an annual point-in-time estimate of the homeless population on a given night in January.

Volunteers and staff from about a dozen local agencies broke into teams at the Opportunity Alliance offices in Bayside to get the job done. The Alliance organized this year’s point-in-time count.

Braving slick roads, the teams set out on organized routes, searching for homeless encampments in the shadows behind trees, under bridges and along overpasses.

“The heart of it, clearly, is that HUD needs accurate numbers with regards to the homeless population,” Opportunity Alliance President Mike Tarpinian said. “They, in turn, use those numbers when they’re allocating funds for the homeless.”

But federal numbers and dollars aren’t the only reason for the count. The city gets far more accurate numbers each month at its own shelter. The annual search is also about outreach and messaging.

“The data is important but it’s also important that we do raise awareness in the community and make a concerted effort to reach out to those folks that aren’t in the shelter, for whatever reason,” Rob Parritt, director of the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, said.

Parritt said he hopes by going out in the night, and making contact, he can convince someone sleeping outside to come to his shelter.

Last year, the count turned up 527 homeless persons in the area. Of them, 474 were in Portland shelters and 53 were found outside. The number amounted to 47 percent of the Maine’s total homeless population of 1,188.

This year, officials expect the overall numbers to be similar though the outdoor figure is likely to be smaller, given the cold, wet weather Tuesday.

“With how severe the ice was during the day, and how cold it was, and just how wet it is, a lot more people who would be sleeping outside, actually came in the shelter tonight,” Adam Harr of the city’s Health and Human Services Department said.

Harr helped search and desolate trail between Clark’s Pond and the highway in South Portland, as well as the Portland’s Western Prom and Western Cemetery.

Phil Bartley of Opportunity Alliance searched alongside Harr, carrying a plastic bag full of handwarmers he planned to pass out. They didn’t find anyone but neither felt let down.

“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed,” Bartley said. “I hope that everybody is warm and sheltered.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.