TAMPA – Fewer people are living on Hillsborough County streets, sleeping in garbage-strewn encampments or in abandoned cars and cheap hotels, according to the results of a survey undertaken by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative in February.
Using 300 volunteers who fanned out all over the county, the survey counted 2,243 “literally homeless men, women and children” down from 2,275 counted in 2013.
“This is it,” said initiative director Maria Barcus. “This is the number of homeless people here.”
In recent years, the counts were suspect because of surveying irregularities, such as including the jail population, which pushed the tally a few years ago to more than 10,000.
This count was more meticulous, Barcus said, and she had faith it was pretty accurate.
“This will put to rest once and for all,” she said, “that Hillsborough County does not have huge number of homeless.”
And, she said, any overall reduction in homeless people is a good thing, though some subpopulations within the total jumped.
Besides counting heads of homeless, both in shelters and living on the street, volunteers carried with them a two-page survey to narrow down the homeless demographic.
Through that, the initiative found that there was a 33 percent decrease in the number of chronically homeless but that 67 percent of those people lived on the street, not in a shelter. There were 20 percent fewer nonchronic homeless families, the survey found. Counted were 396 people living as part of 144 families and they represent 18 percent of the overall homeless population.
The survey showed a 47 percent increase in the number of homeless veterans and their families from 170 last year to 250 this year.
Barcus said that by breaking down who the homeless are, services can be tailored to meet their needs, to “plan for specific interventions, determine where the greatest needs exist and better plan to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and most frequent users of homeless services.”
The five subpopulations include: veterans and their families, chronically homeless nonveterans, unaccompanied youth, families as defined by households with two or more people, and individuals who don’t fall into the other four categories.
Of the homeless counted this year, 49 percent were unsheltered compared to 41.5 percent last year.
Barcus said Hillsborough County’s homeless numbers, in relation to the county’s overall population, fall in line with other Florida counties and cities.
She said the recent change in philosophy by the Housing and Urban Development, which accounts for the lion’s share of funding for homeless programs, to focus on housing rather than services, is starting to make a difference. Last year, she said, a housing first program successfully put 188 chronically homeless people into apartments or houses.
Still, she said, programs implemented in 2014 probably won’t bear fruit for two years.
She acknowledged that some will look at the total number and say not much has changed from last year, but a closer look does show progress, she said.
“Obviously, the decreases in the subpopulations do in fact demonstrate progress has been made,” she said. “Significant changes in the system of care were set in motion in the past six months and the impact of these efforts won’t fully be evident until 2016.”
She said that prior to this year, the homeless count was done every two years, but that it should be done every year.
“Hopefully,” she said, “now it will be an annual event.”