Organizers expected to find more homeless people in their annual survey Thursday, but that doesn't mean more people are living on the streets, they said.
Starting early in the morning, hundreds of volunteers scoured the streets of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in search of people who don't have permanent housing.
Volunteers in Pinellas County tried to entice homeless people to participate in a detailed survey and came prepared with bags of "incentives" – red nylon bags filled with toiletries, granola bars and clothing.
The aim of the survey, organized by the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, was to get a snapshot of the homeless community to determine what people need.
"Once you know of the extent of the problem you can direct funds to where they're needed" such as affordable housing or job training, said count co-coordinator Cliff Smith.
This year's count will perhaps be the most accurate in its history, Smith said.
"I'm expecting to see a big increase," he said.
But that likely will be because of better survey methods and conditions, not necessarily because Pinellas has more homeless people, Smith said.
Organizers don't expect to see any final numbers for the count until at least early April. In 2011, the last time the Pinellas survey was done, volunteers counted 5,887 homeless people. Neighboring Hillsborough County had more than three times that in a count conducted that year.
Pinellas organizers said one advantage they have over rural counties, such as Hillsborough, is that it's easier to identify people in a more urban area with fewer wooded areas to conceal homeless encampments.
This year, there's also the new shelter.
Two years ago, before Pinellas Safe Harbor opened its doors in Clearwater, many more homeless people were "moving targets" and difficult to track down, Smith said. This year, the shelter gave volunteers one more place to find a large concentration of homeless people.
Also different this year is the makeup of the population itself, volunteers said.
"I see a lot more families and younger people aging out of foster care," said Terese Hilliard, who talked with homeless people in downtown St. Petersburg.
Those groups often are the toughest to find, she said.
Among those counted Thursday was Raymond Young, 73, who sat in his wheelchair near a bench in Straub Park. He said he's been sleeping a nearby parking lot for the past three weeks. His "heavy blanket" consisted of two large, colorful beach towels sewn together; he said that's been adequate to keep out the chilly winter air.
"Snug as a bug in a rug," he said.