WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - "Well homelessness is one of those things that nobody has to explain to anybody - you can see it on your streets," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It's an issue communities across the country are struggling to solve. But first, the federal government needs to know the scale of the problem.
"This is a very particular yardstick that we use. It's not the only one, but it's certainly the only one that gets a handle on just how many people are living on our streets," Sullivan added.
Sullivan said each January they lead volunteers in counting those living on the streets.
In its 2017 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the agency used a snapshot approach. It found more than 550,000 people without a roof over their heads on one night in January.
"Counting those people on a single night on a single day in January is extremely difficult - it's really an impossible task," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Foscarinis said the snapshot approach is flawed, because it missed so many. However, she agreed with HUD's findings that the number of homeless people in large, urban areas is up.
In places like Hawaii, the numbers have never been higher.
"We need great leadership on this," said Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI-1). "That's what lacking."
Hanabusa said this is a bipartisan issue, and it comes down to one root problem: affordable housing. HUD is investing $2 billion this year in more than 7,000 local homeless shelters, but advocates argue more is needed to make homeless rare and brief.