Homeless recount in Hillsborough aims to find more people than January

04/10/13 Janelle Irwin
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Volunteers combed the county Tuesday night to find out if there are still more than 7,000 people living on the streets Hillsborough County. Many fewer than that were counted in January, prompting this recount.

A woman named Kimberly sat alone on a curb in downtown Tampa saying she hoped the effort would help people like her.

“I just try to, you know, get shelter when I can, fill out applications. I’m trying to go back to rehab. I eat lunch at Trinity where they feed the homeless for lunch and I just try to make the best of things.”

“Do you think that you get the help you need if you know where to find it?”

“Sometimes, but it’s rare. It’s like a struggle.”

The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County already conducted a count in January but they suspected many people were missed. Coalition CEO Maria Barcus said the problem was likely that the homeless count done in January coincided with Gasparilla.

“For that reason, the whole community was turned upside down. So, even while the count was going on that day, we got numerous reports that places where homeless people would normally congregate were empty and some had even been posted ‘no trespassing.’”

Groups of volunteers cover all areas of the county, even places not known for their homeless populations. But still, Barcus said the numbers this year just didn’t seem right.

“… suggested that we had about half the number of people on our streets as we did in 2011 and we checked with our providers who provide shelter and who provide meals and had them go back and look at their records from 2011 in January and compare whether they had seen a difference in demand and they reported back that they had seen a slight decrease, but nothing like what we got in the count.”

Volunteers counted people without homes from about 4:30 until 8 in the evening. The Homeless Coalition’s CEO expects the results to be closer to 7,000 which is how many people considered “literally homeless” discovered during the 2011 count. Barcus said even though the agency could have planned the first go around a little better, the re-count won’t cost the agency too much money.

“Well, it’s a big investment of time and we’re not re-doing everything. We’re not re-doing the phone bank. We’re not re-doing the doubled up count. We did a vulnerability survey of the chronically homeless – we’re not re-doing that. So, it is a commitment of resources – mostly time and the volunteer’s times and that’s the main cost really.”

The initial homeless count included an in-depth series of questions and also counted people who are staying with friends or family who are at risk of becoming homeless – the coalition calls that doubled-up. But the re-count focused solely on those who have taken to living on the streets. Homeless Coalition volunteer Joel Pietsch said a lot of the people he spoke with hadn’t been homeless for long.

“But the number of periods of homelessness seems to be around 3 or 4 lifetime, maybe longer. Some of the people have been on the streets off and on – that seems to be the predominant thing.”

Results from the bi-annual homeless count are sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The information is used to plan future funding and service needs. But many in Hillsborough’s homeless population don’t trust those intentions. Pietsch said a lot of people don’t want to answer questions because they're afraid the information will be used against them.

“Well, I think some folks have that impression and based on their experience, they either think that this is going to be a helpful process or it’s just a matter of counting people so they can get eliminated off the street.”

The agency expects to get results of Tuesday night’s count sometime next month. In the meantime, the coalition will weed out duplicates in the count to ensure their results are accurate.

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