Josh O’Brien and Rob Parritt set out Wednesday night in search of something they didn’t want to find: an encampment with homeless people living in tents.

O’Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, got his wish. He found no one living on a wooded strip of waterfront land off West Commercial Street, a well-known campsite for the homeless.

Parritt’s team wasn’t as fortunate. It found four people, camping in different settings, all of whom refused help and shelter from Wednesday night’s cold. “It is concerning,” Parritt said. “But on the other hand, I am pleased that we didn’t find more people.”

The Oxford Street Shelter coordinated the city’s Point-in-Time count, an annual, national census of each community’s homeless population. The survey aims to determine the number of people using Portland’s shelters, and identify those who are living outside the shelter system.

The snapshot of a city or town’s homeless population helps local officials develop a plan for combating homelessness and gives the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development the data it needs in reviewing state or local applications for funding.

In Maine, the number of homeless people climbed 26 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to HUD. The federal agency, in a report released in November, said 2,393 people were homeless in Maine in 2012, and 3,016 people were homeless last year.

The Maine State Housing Authority issued a press release this week that tried to clarify HUD’s estimates. It said the 26 percent increase included not only people who were homeless, but people who had moved into transitional and independent housing. “The real percentage of people who were homeless during the survey period was 11 percent,” the housing authority said.

By design, the census is done at one of the coldest times of the year. As the teams went out Wednesday night, the temperature was already brutally cold. The National Weather Service in Gray reported a temperature of 19 degrees in Portland at 7 p.m. It was expected to fall as low as 5 degrees overnight, with a wind chill factor of 5 below zero, said meteorologist Mike Kistner.

Inside the Oxford Street shelter, Bill Burney, HUD’s Maine field office director, told survey volunteers who gathered for a briefing that, “We’ve made great strides. … Maine is ranked second in the nation as having the lowest number of unsheltered people, and that is great.”

Teams of volunteers rode in vehicles to six locations across Portland before setting out on foot. O’Brien’s team, which included Burney, went toward the waterfront along west Commercial Street, tramped down a steep incline and crossed railroad tracks before heading into a thickly wooded area next to the Fore River.

The goal was simple: encourage anyone found camping to seek shelter or, if they refused shelter, offer them hand warmers, water, food and a blanket.

The team didn’t find any campers. O’Brien said the extreme cold that the state has had this winter appears to be driving more and more people into shelters. “We’ve had as many as 96 men and women in chairs since the cold weather started,” he said.

Those people must spend the night sitting in chairs at the Oxford Street Shelter because all of the beds are occupied. The shelter can comfortably handle about 200 people, but the number of people seeking shelter has soared as high as 279 in recent weeks, O’Brien said.

Parritt’s team found four homeless people camping.

The first encampment was in a wooded area off Brighton Avenue, near the Barron Center nursing home. Parritt said he met one man who refused his offer of shelter and food. The man told him that one other person was living in the camp. Parritt couldn’t get close enough to see if the man had a heat source. “He thought we were police officers and wasn’t thrilled that we were there,” Parritt said.

Parritt found a second camp off Marginal Way, near the AAA office building, with one man living in a tent. “He wanted nothing to do with us,” Parritt said. A fourth camper was living in his truck on Marginal Way. Though the man refused to come into the shelter, he accepted supplies from Parritt.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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