When volunteers comb the region to count San Diego's homeless population next week, they'll use infrared technology on drones and helicopters to help them locate people living in canyons and other areas where they might be harder to find.

The idea is that those digital images, and other changes planned for the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless for the Jan. 25 "Point-in-Time" event, could provide more useful and accurate results. The count is a funding requirement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that's challenging on many levels. It's done in pre-dawn hours, when people are most likely to be asleep, in an attempt to make them easier to count, but inevitably some people are missed.

Task force CEO Tamera Kohler said several steps are being taken this year in an effort to count more people and gather more demographic information. (Last year's count didn't include some people who were staying at the San Diego Rescue Mission and others who live in RVs.)

San Diego will use overhead thermal imaging devices that can locate people in the dark by detecting their body heat. The San Diego Police Department will fly a helicopter equipped with thermal imaging equipment over central areas of the city, and the Sheriff's Department will fly a helicopter with the devices over Lakeside. The Chula Vista Police Department also will use thermography to find people but will fly a drone instead of a helicopter.

San Diego County has the fourth-largest homeless population in the nation but often is ranked 20th in funding from HUD. Last year's countywide count found about 5,000 homeless people outdoors or in vehicles and about 3,600 in shelters. 

HUD has pushed the task force to collect more information from homeless people, and 11 contracted workers from the federal agency have been in San Diego to help prepare for the count.

The most significant change in this year's count will be an increased effort to gather demographic information from more homeless people through a 21-question survey. People will be asked about their race and health, the reasons they became homeless and for how long, and whether they are a veteran, have a substance abuse problem and other questions.

Surveys won't be conducted in most of the 627 census tracts covered in the count, but only in areas with the most dense homeless populations.

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