Every year, volunteers spread out across Utah to get an accurate count of the number of people who are without a permanent home. It is difficult but important work, because without an accurate count of the homeless population, the state is flying blind when it comes to the kinds of policies and services that can best fight the problem.

And the organizations behind this census have persuasive proof the problem can indeed be effectively fought. For example, in the last seven years, the population of the chronically homeless – people who have been without a home for at least a year — has been reduced by more than 70 percent.

It is a significant advancement, but still only a dent in a larger problem that has determined the number of people who are without a home at any given time has actually increased.

The project is known as the "Point-in-Time count," and it is a coordinated function among a variety of law enforcement, health care and social services agencies, as well as volunteer groups and religious organizations. The goal is to gather enough data to offer suggestions on how best to target the various needs of people who struggle to make ends meet.

The survey uncovers information that shows how those specific needs vary from situation to situation. It also reveals that a large spectrum of personal circumstances may bring people to the point of homelessness.

The recent Point-in-Time count found 3,257 homeless individuals scattered throughout the state. A statistical extrapolation of that number suggests that during 2012, more than 16,000 people were homeless at some point. That number is up from fewer than 14,000 in 2005. When you factor in general population growth over that period, combined with the fact that the state and nation suffered through a severe recession, the number might easily be worse.

Even so, the number is still too high. And it doesn't take into account the "at-risk" population that lives just on the verge of homelessness, which some experts suggest also has grown. Furthermore, the surveys have shown an increase in the number of entire families thrust into at least temporary homelessness, which portends difficulty going forward in reducing the number of chronically homeless. Research shows homelessness can be a generational phenomenon and that providing services for the younger population is the best way to break the cycle.

The good news is that by uncovering such specific trends, the annual surveys can lead to specific programs and policies, allowing providers to target categories of recipients in a surgical approach that is more efficient than blanket welfare grants.

The value of the work done by the volunteers who conduct the surveys can't be understated. The information they uncover serves two important objectives. It puts a specific number to a problem we otherwise might regard as a vague and transitory phenomenon that inevitably exists as a fact of modern life.

More importantly, it puts a face on the problem, offering a detailed view of exactly who is in such a struggle and why. And such hard information can go a long way toward dispelling the myths and stereotypes that impede an effective and compassionate campaign for a solution.