Hillsborough homeless count now includes teens and young adults

02/27/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: homeless, Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, Sandra Murman, poverty, homeless count, Lesa Weikel


Anthony Jones, left, has been homeless since he was a teenager.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Volunteers are taking to the streets in Hillsborough throughout Thursday to tally the county’s homeless population. But this year the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative is expanding its search to what they call unaccompanied youth between 16 and 24 years old. Lesa Weikel is the community relations manager for that group.

“They’ve been kicked out of their house. Sometimes it’s because of sexuality. Sometimes they leave because of abuse. It’s almost always family issues, but they find themselves with nowhere to go. So, they hide very well, but they’re also very vulnerable to exploitation, prostitution, drugs and mistreatment that we want to identify them and develop resources for them.”

Weikel, who organized two separate youth initiatives at the Well resource center in Ybor City, says this group is the hardest to count because most of the teens and young adults don’t want to be found.

“Some of the kids on the street have been in foster care and have fled the system for various reasons as well. A lot of kids don’t want to go into foster care. They hear the horror stories and so they’re resistant to that and that’s why they are so hard to find.”

The homeless initiative group conducts a count every year. Last year it identified more than 2,000 people who were either chronically homeless, which means they have been living on the streets for an extended period of time or for several shorter stints, or are “doubling up.” Some people call that couch surfing and it’s a term volunteers were told to use instead of homeless when talking to the unaccompanied youth demographic.

“Homeless unaccompanied youth typically don’t identify as being homeless. It’s just because they don’t see themselves as the Hollywood stereotype – they’re not sleeping on cardboard boxes in the street. Usually they’re going from one friend’s couch to another friend’s couch and so on.”

That’s Jeremiah Kerr, the outreach and community development coordinator for the Ybor Youth Clinic. The group, run by USF Health, offers STD testing and treatment. Kerr says many of the youngsters who come in and out of the clinic are either homeless or at risk. Without resources, he adds, many of them turn to sex to get by.

“Survival sex is essentially using your body as the one currency that you have to gain other needed resources whether it be housing, food, money, clothing, any of those things.”

But right now there are few resources available for people living on the streets, especially those under the age of 18. That’s why officials say it’s important to quantify the county’s homeless problem so groups can better plan for services. The homeless initiative took to social media to draw teens and young adults out to the Well in Ybor City. They also posted flyers announcing there would be free bus passes, food and other hygiene necessities. But their staging ground to survey unaccompanied youth isn’t ignoring adults. Brad Olson became homeless up north over the summer after battling depression as a result of his divorce.

“But I didn’t look at it in Michigan as homelessness because there’s like, tent cities and things of that nature to where, I looked at it as home free. I lost all my responsibilities, I didn’t care about a lot of things and I didn’t report or have anything really to worry about, just hang out and get drunk all day. And then it got cold out.”

Olson says his family told him to get his act together and he did. After getting a part-time job for a couple of weeks, he scraped together enough money to buy a bus ticket and moved to Florida. Now Olson is a success story. Tomorrow he starts a job in search engine optimization for what he describes as a large bank.

“Tomorrow I have to shave my face and I have a whole bag of dress clothes that I’ve got to dig out and iron and make sure are clean and all that stuff.”

But not everyone manages to pull themselves out of homelessness. Anthony Jones is a veteran and he’s been homeless for decades since he was 14 after his mother passed away.

“It’s rough. I slept over here at the park in Ybor City. It’s not fun, but it was cold and I was shivering and shaking and I’m trying to find somewhere to get inside.”

Among volunteers helping with the count are several county and city officials. Hillsborough County Commissioner and Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative board member Sandra Murman started her shift at the unaccompanied youth count in Ybor this morning through lunch.

“Every human deserves a place to live. They deserve to – most of them need services, mental health, substance abuse. We’re finding that wrap around services are actually as important as giving them a place to put their head at night. On the other hand, veterans, nobody that’s ever worn a uniform should ever be on the street. I did just survey a veteran and it made me feel like, I had a tear in my eye.”

The results from the homeless count are expected to take several weeks, but volunteers were trained to offer outreach information to people they spoke to including Veteran’s Affairs and health services.

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