January’s annual count of the homeless in Hillsborough County showed a shocking development: the number of people living in shelters, on the street, in campgrounds and with relatives and friends was half that of two years ago.
The problem is the front line of those providing services to the homeless aren’t seeing that. They are handing out just as many meals, filling just as many shelter beds, and treating just as many indigent patients as they did two years ago when more than 17,000 homeless people were counted here.
The bottom line: Local homeless advocates believe the tally in the 2013 count is badly skewed.
So the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County has asked federal authorities for a do-over, a recount of the homeless. They plan to conduct another count on April 9 if the waiver is granted.
Coalition CEO Maria Barcus, only on the job for 10 days when the Jan. 24 count took place, is hoping officials with the Housing and Urban Development approve her request for a recount. An answer could come as early as this week, she said.
The number of homeless people figures into various formulas that result in federal funding, she said, but more importantly, the community needs to know how many homeless are among them.
The announcement about the recount request came during a Wednesday news conference about a HUD grant of nearly $5.2 million to several Hillsborough County agencies that provide services to the homeless.
Last week, HUD officials announced the award of nearly $74 million for homeless programs in Florida, ensuring the programs deemed critical to solving the homeless problem are funded through this year.
HUD’s Continuum of Care grants are awarded competitively to local projects and fund a wide variety of programs from street outreach to transitional and permanent housing for the homeless.
Homelessness has spiked across the nation over the past few years, blamed partly on the economy and the number of foreclosures since the housing bust. Advocates say there more than 600,000 homeless people in the United States.
Barcus said she expected a slight drop from the count two years ago, but the number from the January count was not even close to what was expected, based on information provided by agencies that deal with the homeless. That information is that there is little change in the volume of services offered from two years ago.
“The number makes you think we had a great breakthrough and that we halved our problem,” she said.
Barcus doesn’t know why volunteers counted so few homeless.
She doesn’t know why. She theorized it may have been because the count was days before the Gasparilla festival.
“There was a lot of disruption on the street,” she said.
In the 2011 count – the homeless count is conducted every two years – volunteers recorded 17,755 homeless men women and children, 10,424 of whom were living with family and friends, and 7,336 living on the streets.
More than 3,000 homeless children are enrolled in Hillsborough County public schools, according to the count.
Those numbers placed the county near the top on a list of urban areas with high homeless populations which prompted HUD to create an initiative focusing on the homeless problem here, said Karen Jackson Sims, deputy regional administrator for HUD.
“We are dedicated to ending homelessness in Hillsborough County,” she said, a region that was identified as one of 10 in the nation to take part in the initiative.
She said there are many factors that contribute to the high number of homeless in Tampa.
One is MacDill Air Force Base, which contributes to a spiked number of homeless veterans. They are discharged, like the area and stay, she said. They can’t find jobs, but enjoy decent veterans’ services, so they remain, often living on the street.
She said the economy also fueled the soaring numbers of homelessness here, along with the state closing down several mental hospitals less than a decade ago.
“We had one family living in a pup tent on Ben T. Davis Municipal Beach,” she said. “This is not the Tampa we know. This is not the Tampa we love.”