Armed with clipboards, volunteers in orange vests their shoes squishing through muddy trails near the American River Parkway approached a group of makeshift tents beneath Highway 160.
"That's no way to be," said county Supervisor Phil Serna, who for the second time accompanied volunteers on a count of Sacramento's homeless Thursday night.
Serna was among hundreds of volunteers who were split up into small groups to visit 50 designated areas in Sacramento County for Sacramento Steps Forward's biennial homeless count.
They joined about 3,000 cities and counties across the nation that are doing similar counts required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said regional officer Gene Gibson.
Cars zipped along the Highway 160 bridge and the occasional light-rail train rumbled above the volunteers' heads. White light shone from their headlamps as they searched for unsheltered individuals and federal dollars.
HUD requires that communities do so-called "point in time" surveys of unsheltered people to be eligible for homeless prevention grants, Gibson said.
Locally, HUD awarded $14.9 million to Sacramento Steps Forward and 14 partner agencies including the county housing authority and Volunteers for America in 2011, the most recent period funding data is available.
Community homeless counts take place at night during the last 10 days in January because it's easier to identify the homeless who are camping outside, since most other people are indoors, said Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The Washington, D.C., advocacy group helped standardize the practice of physically counting people to represent a homeless population.
"It gives us a decent chance of comparing apples to apples from year to year," she said.
HUD distributes about $2 billion in homeless grants nationally each year, Roman said.
The federal agency may use homeless count figures in awarding grants based on formulas, but other grants do not use the data, Gibson said.
Communities must report their count of unsheltered people to HUD only every other year, because "it's a major undertaking and is pretty cost-intensive," she said.
Thursday's homeless tally cost Sacramento Steps Forward about $150,000, executive director Ben Burton said.
The agency was founded in 2011, when it took over some of the county's Department of Human Assistance homeless services to save costs.
"What the county used to do for $6 million, we can do for $1 million," he said. "We can be a lot more nimble in our response to homelessness."
The Department of Human Assistance once employed 30 people for the work that Sacramento Steps Forward has since privatized, DHA director Paul Lake said. The county continues to serve the homeless through programs such as food stamps and veterans' assistance, despite outsourcing work to Sacramento Steps Forward, he said.
"A lot of people under this bridge are also our clients," Lake said, joining homeless count volunteers for his third time.
Surveyors followed a script in their conversations with people sleeping under the highway bridge. Questions about housing conditions, age, race, disability and drug use covered the six-page questionnaire, Burton said.
Volunteers repeatedly reminded their interview subjects that their responses would be anonymous.
Homeless respondents received $5 McDonald's gift cards for their participation.
"My whole family has been deeply involved in trying to make Sacramento better, and I wanted to find a way to do that myself," said 23 year-old Christine Braziel, who was volunteering as a surveyor for the first time. She had completed four surveys after 20 minutes of interviews beneath the overpass.
The surveys not only qualify Sacramento Steps Forward for federal funds, but also collect demographic data that guides the nonprofit's initiatives, Burton said.
The 2011 Sacramento homeless count found the number of chronic homeless declined by half since the 2009 count, but family homelessness rose 11 percent, according to the 2011 report.
"That let us know we need to develop more family programs," Burton said. "The point-in-time count lets us know about trends."
Roman said national trends include a rise in homeless youth, increased awareness of homeless veterans and interest in health care programs for the homeless.
Many of the people sleeping under the Highway 160 overpass Thursday appeared to be middle-age, some owning bicycles or taking care of dogs.
One man advised volunteers to use stairs carved into the dirt to traverse a levee running beneath a bridge.
"I think we can do better," said Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer, an SSF board member attending a homeless count for the first time.
Schenirer's district runs south from Interstate 80 to Florin Road, but he said the tarp encampments just north of downtown were cause for action. "Sacramento is my city," he said.
A report on Thursday's count is expected by May, Burton said.
2,812: Number of homeless people counted in Sacramento County in 2012