Count find spike in Hillsborough's homeless population

05/05/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The results of the 2011 Homeless Count are in, and they show Hillsborough’s Homeless population nearly doubled since the 2009 count. But the reason behind the drastic increase is probably not what you think it is.

The collapsed economy is probably a contributing factor for any spike in an area’s homeless population. This time around, there’s something else that drove the number from around 9,500 two years ago to nearly 18,000 this year. Homeless Coalition CEO Rayme Nuckles said the difference lies in broadening of the definition of homelessness.

"If a family member or an individual lost their job and had to move out of their house or was foreclosed on or moved out of an apartment and moved in with another family member and can't afford a place on their own, that's considered double depth and they're considered homeless."

Nuckles said even with the expanded definition of homelessness, the coalition’s estimate was well below the actual count.

"I'm truly shocked at the dramatic increase. We weren't even projecting that in the office. We were projecting a much lower number."

According to the count, more than 10,000 respondents are “doubled up.” This category includes those living in hotel rooms, sleeping on a friend’s couch, or even moving back in with their parents. Meanwhile, the count found 7,336 people living in the streets throughout Hillsborough County. Sixty-five percent of homeless persons surveyed reported having a source of income. Nuckles said factors like cost of living make it difficult for some individuals and families to make it on their own.

"It's just the fact that they can't afford a unit in the community on their own and it's simply because many people in this community are underemployed."

Twenty-three percent of those surveyed are minors. Nuckles said that families often become homeless when things like a sick child’s medical expenses eat up a household income.

"A medical issue comes up with the child and it takes all of their savings or it may take their whole check."

Since the economy took a nosedive, panhandling has become a front-and-center issue throughout the Tampa Bay area. St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County have banned the practice. Tampa has gone back and forth on the issue, and city officials plan to take it up at a June 16th workshop. Seven percent of Homeless Count respondents listed panhandling as a source of income. This is the first time the count’s history that the survey contained that question. Nuckles said this shows that people will go to great lengths to meet their basic needs.

"There are so many families and individuals that are out there who are in need. People, it's difficult for them to find jobs and if they're underemployed and they can't pay they're rent, they're going to go to any extreme necessary to meet the needs of their family."

Almost 300 volunteers carried out the homeless count, which took place over a 24-hour period on January 27. Many went out into streets and encampments. Others took down stats at a phone bank via the Homeless Count hotline. The coalition admitted that it’s difficult to know how accurate that count is, given the project’s limited scope. Jean Gaylord of Mary Martha House, a shelter serving south Hillsborough, helped out in Wimauma, Ruskin, and parts of Gibsonton. She said it wasn’t always easy to catch people who left their campsites during the day.

"We did see mattresses, food packages, that were still new and maybe just unwrapped so we knew that people were living there but we didn't get to count them."

Not all individuals asked to participate actually do, which is another reason the coalition says there is always an undercount. Ken Salzer, Housing Development Manager with Hillsborough’s Agency for Community Treatment Services, worked the phone bank. He said in years when he went out in the field, he found that some members of the homeless population don’t want to be counted.

"I talked to a gentleman who had lived in the woods out by USF for 10 years. And he said: 'I'm quite content out here." He said: 'I just need some socks.' I gave him a couple pairs of socks."

On the flip side, Salzer said, he has also found that gauging the homeless population has been made somewhat easier due to an underground communication network.

"A lot of homeless people have incomes and there's a great deal of communication between the homeless. There's sort of a homeless underground, believe it or not. A lot of those folks do have phones, cell phones, so they kind of know what's going on."

The coalition conducts the Homeless Count every two years, as required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. It aims to help the county determine its needs and secure funding for programs aimed at helping the homeless population. Homeless Coalition CEO Raymie Nuckles said there is a real threat to funding for programs that help the homeless. For example, he said, the state legislature is about to lop a quarter of a million dollars off Hillsborough’s affordable housing development budget.

"We will lose about $750,000 for development funding to develop housing. This legislative branch during this current legislative session cut a major portion of funding to local homeless coalitions that allows us the opportunity to develop new housing for homeless."

Five percent of respondents reported prior military service, though the coalition cites a 2010 Congressional report suggesting many homeless veterans do not identify themselves as veterans when surveyed.

Friday the Homeless Coalition is hosting what it’s calling a stand down, which gets its title from the Vietnam-era practice of calling troops away from the front lines for a breather. Tomorrow’s Stand Down invites veterans and other homeless come get a warm meal, a medical screening, and even a haircut. It takes place at Hyde Park United Methodist Church at 500 Platt Street.

Previous WMNF news coverage on homelessness

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