Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough tries to get an accurate picture of a very big problem

01/28/11 Kelly Benjamin
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Yesterday, over 300 volunteers assisted with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County’s biennial homeless count throughout Hillsborough County. WMNF’s Kelly Benjamin was embedded with groups of volunteers as they fanned out across the County to conduct the count.

At 4am, the first shift of a dozen volunteers met at Mental Health Care in Seminole Heights, one of several homeless outreach centers participating in the count. Volunteers picked up survey forms, rain ponchos, and pairs of socks to give away to the homeless. Kathy Wiggins, an outreach coordinator for the homeless youth project says this kind of undertaking offers many challenges.

“Volunteers, manpower to actually get out over a very large county.”

The count was conducted in order to get a somewhat accurate picture of the amount of homeless people living in the county in order to secure funding from government agencies and foundations. Art Garrand is the outreach coordinator for Tampa family heath centers.

Garrand explained that a strict methodology is used in the count in order to ensure privacy.

At 4:30am, volunteers with clipboards and bags of clean white socks set off to far corners of the county in search of the homeless. I tagged along with George Smith, a volunteer from Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in West Tampa.

As we made our way toward Town N Country, on Hillsborough Avenue, we spotted a man carrying large trash bags on the side of the road. George pulled over.

"Excuse me sir, we're from the Homeless Coalition..."

The gentleman did not want to be disturbed, thus we couldn't count him.

"A lot of times they don’t want to be bothered."

At 4:45 we stopped at at Action Labor on West Hillsborough where a group of men were standing outside in the cold.

We did receive one tip, there were some moving trucks behind a strip mall nearby. In the back of one of the trucks several men had moved in and were sleeping, bundled up, trying to keep warm.

"We’re trying to take a survey to assist some of you guys.

Again, no one wanted to talk to us. At this point we had probably encountered over a dozen homeless people but due to the rules of the count, none of these individuals were counted, officially.

“It’s frustrating.”

We eventually did find someone who would talk to us, in a wooded area near Fowler Avenue. Tom is a Tampa native has been sleeping in the woods with his fiancé since losing his job 6 months ago.

Sarah Romeo, director of Tampa Crossroads, another homeless outreach organization that is taking part the homeless count, is passionate about the issue of panhandling and how it relates to the homeless.

The official results of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County’s count will not be available until May 1.

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