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Volunteers set out this week to take a sample — a snapshot, really — of the homeless population in Billings and surrounding counties.

The annual point-in-time survey that started this week compiles a variety of factors among the homeless. Joined with similar efforts across the country, it's meant to find out what's going on with homeless people on a single night each January.

The surveys are completed by volunteers who have the sometimes difficult job of asking tough questions to homeless folks, one on one.

"A couple came in, and I said 'where are you going to stay?'" said Edward Saunders, who was conducting surveys Thursday evening at the Montana Rescue Mission. "They said, 'I don't know.'"

Saunders was one of four volunteers at the rescue mission Thursday. Just before dinner time, people answered a series of questions on a ready-made survey sheet. The subjects remained anonymous and received a small bag with water and food in exchange for the information.

The survey sheet asks subjects how long and often they find themselves homeless. It asks whether they receive benefits, move through different towns and if they've served in the military.

That last question is of special interest to Saunders, who is a member of Disabled American Veterans. He said that it's where the survey overlaps with his work. Occasionally he's able to help steer a homeless veteran toward health care or other benefits.

"It helps us to help you," Saunders told one survey subject as they sat down. Next to him, another man told a volunteer about medical problems he'd been experiencing.

The point-in-time survey is conducted as part of a national network. Organizations in Maine, Georgia and Wyoming underwent similar projects this week.

A lot of the survey data make it up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, through efforts from government and independent organizations. 

This year, the Billings survey was led by the HRDC Community Action Agency. Andrea Jones, content coordinator for the organization, said that the survey helps contribute to the larger effort, but it also helps them fine-tune their own community efforts.

"It also gives us the type of information we need to help them out the best," Jones said.

Additionally, there are incentives for federal grants for leading the survey, she said.

HRDC spread about 20 volunteers around multiple locations, all of which contributed in some way. Surveys were conducted at places like the library, St. Vincent de Paul, the Community Crisis Center and others.

There were also groups walking the streets and visiting so-called "transient camps." Carmen Gonzalez, a team leader at the Mental Health Center, said that the organization has been doing it for years.

She said that volunteers visited areas on the southside, the Heights, the West End and downtown. There were a lot of new faces.

"Which tells us that a lot of people are coming and going," Gonzalez said.

Like Saunders, Gonzalez said that the work also helps her own organization. One of the questions on the survey sheet asks what services a person would most need at this time. The first option is mental health treatment.

People can be reluctant to participate, but Gonzalez said that they try to explain to people that the raw data of surveys can aid the larger battle, rather than the immediate need.

"The only way communities can help is to keep hearing what they have to say," she said.

In addition to the Billings effort, Jones said that HRDC volunteers will be moving throughout the organization's coverage area. That includes Sweetgrass, Carbon, Stillwater and Big Horn counties. Surveys were being completed in Crow Agency on Thursday.

The point-in-time surveys study a cross section, not a complete population, and focus on factors in a homeless person's life rather than provide a numerical figure.

Still, Jones said that surveys across Montana reached 1,745 homeless people last year. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a release that the point-in-time surveys "measures the scope" of homelessness.

After the 2015 surveys, the agency concluded that 564,708 people nationwide are homeless on a given night. The report also said that homelessness has declined in the U.S. by 11 percent since 2010.

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