TAMPA — Maybe it was the cold and rain or maybe it’s just difficult to locate and talk to an underground population that keeps itself safe by becoming invisible.
Whatever the reason, some 300 volunteers had a tough time Thursday as they fanned out in an attempt to tally every homeless person in Hillsborough County.
Some found jackpots but many others came up mostly dry, including the team scouring the area around East Fletcher Avenue.
“They’re out there, just not now,” said Paul Foreman, 52, as he sat on the curb in front of Seafood Select at the corner of Fletcher Avenue and North 22nd Street, “There are homeless guys all over the place, but you ain’t going to find them right now because of the weather.”
Foreman had been homeless for about two years, but two months ago he was placed in a house through Gracepoint, a support organization that helps the chronically homeless.
The four-member team of volunteers thanked him and went on their way. They moved on to the next address on the list of 44 spots around an area west of the University of South Florida known for its transient population.
Thursday’s count, coordinated by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, formerly known as the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, began at 4 a.m. and was to last through 11 p.m. The county and city of Tampa were divided into eight zones with 219 identified locations where the homeless gather, including emergency shelters, campsites, soup lines and transitional housing facilities.
Volunteers were dressed in bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words: “I am counting to end homelessness.”
From Hyde Park to Plant City to Town ’N Country to the blighted areas around USF, volunteers met and talked to the homeless. To ease the introductions, volunteers handed out prepaid bus passes to those who were cooperative. Organizers purchased 2,400 passes from HART to give out.
Laketa Entzminger, 28, a graduate student studying public health, said she volunteered for the homeless count to broaden her outlook and to get a different perspective.
“I’m not from around here,” she said, “and I wanted to learn a bit more about the homeless population and just to see what’s going on. It is a little intimidating, though.”
Volunteers were told to walk away from an encounter if they felt threatened or uncomfortable and to remain within sight of each other.
“Don’t force anyone to participate,” said Tyler Pidgeon, who gave the pep talk to the volunteers at the University Area Community Center. “Call 911 for emergencies and check in with me. And the bus passes? They’re for incentives only.”
The volunteers were given a list of people who were eligible for possible placement into transitional housing, he said, and if they came across anyone on the list they should call to arrange immediate transportation to a Gracepoint screening site.
“These are chronically homeless people,” Pidgeon said, “who actually are in danger of dying out there.”
Volunteers also canvassed Ybor City for homeless youths and young adults between 16 and 24. Homeless young people typically are difficult to identify on the street so the hope was to draw out that demographic to be counted.
Thursday was the first concerted effort to get a count of homeless teens and young people, but Thursday morning was slow going in spite of the lure of free water, socks and pizza at The Well, a ministry on Seventh Avenue.
Among the volunteers at The Well was Joe Clark, who serves on the board of directors for the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. He sees the count as a critical step toward getting a handle on the homeless problem in the county.
“Unless you have an accurate number of who these people are and what caused them to be homeless, it’s hard to have a strategy to address the issues that got them in that situation,” Clark said.
He said the problem of homeless youth remains clouded in mystery. Some are runaways and aren’t technically homeless. They differ from others who have been kicked out of their homes or who “age out” of foster care and are out on the street at 18 with no support and few prospects.
“We haven’t had an accurate number in a while, but we are encouraged by this,” he said. “We are optimistic we will get good information with which to move forward.”
Homeless counts in the past have provided unreliable numbers. A few years ago, more than 10,000 people were counted, sending the homeless advocacy machine into a panic. But the numbers weren’t accurate, it turns out. The method was flawed because volunteers counted jail populations and other people not really homeless.
Last year, two counts were held, and social advocates settled on just over 2,200 people living on the streets of Hillsborough County, giving advocates hope the problem was not as pervasive as previously thought.
Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative CEO Maria Pellerin Barcus said the count this year should result in reliable numbers.
“The methods we are using were reviewed by national experts who do these counts,” she said, “and they say we are doing everything that can be done. It’s now just a question of waiting and seeing what happens.”
She said the federal Housing and Urban Development, which hands out the lion’s share of grants for local homeless programs, requires a count every two years, though Barcus said once a year should be the practice.
“The fact that our numbers have varied significantly from one time to another is problematic,” she said. “We can never reach, we can never find all of the homeless people out there. The best we can get is a trend line.”
She said volunteers had a tough time finding homeless people early in the day.
“I think it varies from area to area,” she said, “Some homeless people were not at their usual places this morning because of the rain. But by the end of day we’ll pick them up at one place or another.”
The results of the survey will be available in about a month, she said.
None of the efforts so far have helped Gregory Williams, homeless for about a year.
He sat on the wet ground near his home, a sleeping bag beneath a drooping blue tarp behind a convenience store at the corner of East 131st and Livingston avenues. The dirt had turned to mud after the cold rain, and Williams, 58, sat on a wet sweatshirt while he was interviewed.
“What caused you to become homeless?’ asked Lauren Richardson, an economics major at USF who volunteered for the count and will help in tabulating the data.
“Alcohol,” he said.
Williams has written permission from the store owner to camp on the site, which keeps the law from hassling him, but he still faces danger from thugs and thieves every day and night.
“It’s pretty safe here,” he said.