As thousands of Republican leaders decry the state of the economy inside the Republican National Convention, Tampa's homeless will be looking to stow belongings, find shelter from crowds and, if they're lucky, receive a hot meal.
The Tampa area already has one of the nation's largest homeless populations, so shelter capacity is often an issue, said Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Now come concerns that people pouring into Tampa for RNC protests also will seek to use services created for the homeless — including shelters. To make sure resources go where they're supposed to, homeless advocates developed a plan.
Since Monday, the Homeless Coalition has worked with more than 15 other organizations, including Metropolitan Ministries and the Salvation Army, to expand local shelter services during the RNC and inform local homeless people of their options during the weeklong convention.
Homeless people, or those trying to help homeless people, can call (813) 205-0983 any time though Sept. 3 to obtain voucher. Volunteers can even meet certain callers "depending on their mobility," Weikel said.
Once a meeting is set up, the volunteer will transport the caller to a shelter with a voucher to stay for free for up to 10 days. Because of demand, Weikel said, the best time to call is before 6 p.m. Messages after that might have to wait for the next day.
"Hopefully, during that time, we can also get them connected to some services that could eventually lead to more long-term housing placement," Weikel said.
"We don't want to give out a list of shelters because if they just go directly there … there may not be space for them because we do have a very severe lack of shelter space on any regular day."
The Salvation Army shelter will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with extra staff on hand, family service worker Irene Zucco said. Starting today, the conditional housing program — which usually requires guests to check in at 4 p.m. and leave at 7 a.m. the next day — will allow visitors to stay through Aug. 30 and leave their belongings on their beds. The Salvation Army has 225 beds, she said, and provides toiletries, fresh linens and three meals a day.
"If we have any women with children that find themselves homeless we will take some overflow in our women's program and our emergency shelter will be open," Zucco said. "For the last two weeks the emergency shelter has been running at capacity, which is not typical for this time of year. We have about 20 more people than we typically do."
Zucco said they have not had an issue with out-of-town visitors trying to take beds, though the Tampa Police Department has been following up with the organization to make sure such incidents don't occur.
Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries, said in an email that the shelter will be fully staffed at all hours and will enhance "street outreach to provide safety education" to the homeless. The staff also will link those in need with partner agencies, such as the Salvation Army, Hillsborough House of Hope and Celebration of Hope, to provide extra resources.
Weikel said soup kitchens and shelters she knows of will all be open during the RNC, but some operations, such as meal deliveries, may be interrupted because of convention-related traffic and street closures.
Just having a place for the homeless to stow bags is important for them because they may be subject to police searches, especially in the downtown-area convention "Event Zone" where a laundry list of items is prohibited.
"Homeless people in the normal course of everyday life are always at-risk of increased victimization, beatings, theft and mistreatment," Weikel said.
"They don't have any place to store their belongings other than bushes and hidden crevices and, with more people in the downtown area, that puts their things at more risk. If they have an ID and it gets stolen, it's very hard for a homeless person to be able to get that ID back."
According to a 2011 census conducted by the Homeless Coalition, almost 18,000 people can be considered homeless in the Tampa area. Of those, more than 7,300 have no shelter.
A panhandling ban was passed last year in Tampa, prohibiting panhandlers in the area except on Sundays, but Weikel said she hasn't seen much of a change since then in the local homeless population. The next homeless census is scheduled for 2013.
According to current data, only 7 percent of recorded homeless people said they panhandle to receive income, she said.
"Homeless people are not as transient as the general population believes," she said. "They don't have the resources to move around a lot … usually the people that are homeless in the community became homeless there."
That's why the coalition is asking people downtown during the RNC to remember that homeless people "are members of the community," and to offer their phones so people can call the hotline number if they need shelter or the police if they've been victims of crime.
The coalition, Weikel said, "did not come to help lead this process just to make homeless people invisible. They truly need to be protected during all of this, and without a home it's pretty hard to protect yourself."