Trish Symons traced a single set of footprints that led out of the woods. A heavy, sudden snowfall Tuesday morning had concealed the man’s tracks from the night before.

As she approached a green shed behind the grocery store in Barberton, she tucked her work badge into her winter coat, concealing her identity as the supervisor for Community Support Services, which serves mostly the mentally ill.

She didn’t want the homeless man in the hut to think someone was coming to diagnose him.

“These are peoples’ homes, whether it’s out in an encampment or not, we’ve got to be respectful,” said Joe Scalise, who is heading up a local census as the nation tallies its homeless population this week.

Summit County has provided the annual head count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 2009. After a decade of tracking people who sometimes wish not to be found, local agencies in the Continuum of Care are more confident than ever in their findings.

No longer do they promise gift cards to homeless people who would simply line up three times to be counted. Today, birth dates and initials are recorded then cross-checked to verify the count. Nor do they trample on the allies and camps that homeless people call home, destroying the trust that service providers work to build all year long.

“We don’t want to unsettle someone,” Scalise said. “Back in 2010, we would just get a group of volunteers and walk around downtown with a flashlight. And to be honest, if I were homeless, I’d probably run the other way if I saw that crowd coming.”

Counting down

From a peak of 859 in 2010 to a low of 507 last year, Summit County’s estimated homeless population continues to fall, for several reasons.

The economy and joblessness have improved. Local poverty rates have fallen from 30 to 25 percent in Akron, where most of the county’s homeless live.

And participating groups — shelters for homeless adults, families and battered women, about a dozen metal health, housing and support service providers and several local governments — continue to collaborate, providing easier and more efficient ways for homeless people to get lasting help. That’s what advocates say has taken the biggest bite out of homelessness in Summit County.

The homeless counts set federal aid levels for local communities. Guided by the Obama-era Hearth Act of 2009, HUD has increasingly used grants to push rapid rehousing, or getting people off the streets and out of the woods first, then building financial independence through help with rent, car repairs, employment or applying for a driver’s license, birth certificate, Social Security card or all of the above.

Some homeless people say applying for permanent housing is a hassle. Routine check-ins track progress toward getting treatment or other help. Able-bodied men might wait years before being accepted into public housing. Women and children can move from a shelter to a federally subsidized apartment in less than nine months.

Collaborative center

The 2018 homeless count won’t be official until this summer. Scalise may have preliminary estimates this weekend.

The expectation is that homelessness will continue to decline, especially since the Homeless Outreach and Intake Center of Summit County opened in November, moving from the back of Community Support Services, where it serviced 535 individuals last year.

The new, more spacious location at 111 E. Voris St. combines several agencies. As they refer clients back and forth, or connect them with public and private housing programs, the center has made contact with 475 people this fiscal year, which is only half over.

The center shares an entrance with Community Resource and Referral Center for Veterans. There’s office space for Family Promise of Summit County, which houses homeless families, and Isabella’s Closet, which takes and distributes donated furniture. On-site consultants help with cash or food assistance and vocational training.

Three days a week, intake coordinators with Info Line Inc., where Scalise works, match clients with other state, local and federal programs. About 300 homeless people use the center as a personal mailbox.

There’s twice as many showers and facilities to wash clothes, all of which are free. Eligible clients also get rent assistance, which typically lasts three to five months before they’re back on their feet.

The one-stop shop for homeless services receives local funding from a long list of private donors and the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board. Three federal grants provide long-term support to the homeless and their families. One program, whose funding lapses this year, has serviced 75 people “who look unhouseable on paper” because of addiction or criminal charges that often accompany homelessness. Only three have returned to the streets, so far.

“We’d have people living on the streets for 10 or 15 years,” Residential Manager Tim Edgar said of the days before the program. “Put them in a house and they wouldn’t know how the hell anything works.”

Under the bridge

Edgar and Symons went out to Barberton and Akron on Tuesday, led by “superhero” outreach worker, Mike Harhager. They ventured to the places homeless people sleep at night.

Beneath an Akron Innerbelt bridge, they surveyed two campsites. Here, they remembered two men who had lived there before entering their program and achieving self-sufficiency. It looked like two more had moved in.

“If they’re not sleeping here, they’re using it for storage,” Symons said, looking at a football, cereal boxes, patio furniture cushions and knickknacks that rattled as cars speed by overhead.

Under the next bridge, Edgar crouched beside two mattresses. Immediately beside them, concrete sloped steeply into the canal. In a bag, Edgar found a manila folder with a driver’s license photo.

He recognized the man as a former client. “Chronic alcoholic,” he said, noting the proximity of the mattresses to the ice-cold water. He might not be counted this year if not found somewhere else.

Riding back, Symons and Edgar explained the pros and cons of counting homeless people in the cold. HUD mandates the count be done in January.

The chill fills day centers, churches and soup kitchens, which makes homeless people easy to find. In nicer weather, half the city’s largest emergency shelters would be empty. That makes counting in the cold an accurate and efficient way to get an overall count, but not the best method for knowing how many are actually unsheltered during the year.

Women and children are also underrepresented in the count. “I think it’s definitely skewed for families and women,” Symons said. “I feel like they can always find someone to take them in [when it gets cold]. And it may not always be the best or healthiest place to go.”

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter.