SPOKANE, Wash. — "How many months have you been homeless?" a city staffer asks a man staying at the Union Gospel Mission shelter in Spokane.

It's one of dozens of questions she'll ask dozens of people over the course of the night, all part of the annual, monumental challenge of counting the number of people currently homeless in the area.

The point-in-time count began on Thursday night in the city's shelters, and will last for several more days as outreach staff begin surveying people on the streets not in shelters. It's no small task.

"It's pretty massive," said David Lewis, Homeless Management Information Systems administrator for the city and county. "I mean, this year we have over 200 volunteers, over 200 counting locations."

At UGM, staff and volunteers plug in answers on an app that keeps the data in real time.

"The next set of questions have some sensitive topics in them, so again if you don't want to answer, please feel free to let me know," a staffer reassures one survey participant.

Questions range from basic demographics to personal history to experience with past surveys to thoughts on how to deal with homelessness.

Many at the shelter on Thursday were happy to participate, saying getting accurate information about their experiences out to the public will give people a better, and perhaps more compassionate, understanding of their lives and needs.

"A lot of people look at us like we choose to be here and we don't," said Drake Burbank. He's just 18 years old and staying at UGM, having battled drug and alcohol addiction. "We choose to do something and it takes control of our life, and there's not really a choice involved."

Many others, though, don't want to be involved at all, especially those on the streets and out of shelters. That is a group that's much harder to reliably track.

And accurate data is critical. The point-in-time count is used by agencies from the city level all the way up to the federal government. 

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In fact, the count exists because of a mandate from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and is conducted yearly in municipalities across the country who want to receive HUD funding.

The survey is also incomplete. The HUD definition of homeless is fairly narrow. It largely omits, for instance, people who are couch surfing or something similar.

"That's correct, and that's a common frustration, which I do understand," Lewis said.

Last year's point-in-time count showed 1,309 people homeless in Spokane County. 

The Spokane Homeless Coalition, a local nonprofit, did a non-scientific estimate based on a broader definition. They came up with a number roughly ten times that: 11,319.

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That's why it's crucial that policymakers use their full toolbox of data when making decisions.

"The point-in-time count is really one definition, one look at those [numbers], that meets the HUD's definition," Lewis said. "But we do have other reporting tools."

The results of this year's count are expected to become available as soon as early March.