Volunteers to count people without homes in Hillsborough County this week

01/22/13 Janelle Irwin
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Volunteers are taking to the streets in Hillsborough to count how many people don’t have a place to live. The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County will also take calls on Thursday to gather information about people without homes or who are about to become homeless. Lesa Weikel, the group’s spokesperson, said the count done two years ago found some 18,000 people who didn’t have a permanent residence.

“We really don’t know what to expect. It’s a very common question as to whether it’s going to go up or down or how numbers are going to change. What we do know is it’s going to be the best number that we can get.”

That’s because the coalition uses an organized process of gathering information that reduces the chances of people being counted more than once.

“When we go out and do the count, we just don’t go and say, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.’ We actually have volunteers who engage homeless people and ask them a series of questions - demographic questions – and we get information like the first letter of their first name, the first three letters of their last name, date of birth, state they were born in and we create a string of numbers that is unique to that person so even if that person answers the survey three times, they will only be counted in our numbers once.”

Weikel said the homeless census is needed so that the agency can plan.

“Until we understand who our homeless neighbors are - how old they are, what gender, veterans, non-veterans, medical-psychological issues, families – we can’t plan as a community as how to implement programs to meet their needs and end their homelessness.”

The count also includes people Weikel describes as doubled up. That could mean crashing on a friend’s couch or staying with family.

“Being able to count those who are doubled up, who are about to become homeless allows the community to use that information for planning purposes as well. We know that these are people who are very much likely going to end up on the street or in the shelters so we need to be looking at that plan as well.”

The count isn’t directly tied to any funding sources.

“But the numbers are looked at and all sorts of federal, state, local, private funding sources – they want to know what their need is and how what they’re going to fund is going to help reduce that need.”

Volunteers will canvass the streets beginning at 4:30 a.m. Thursday wearing bright orange shirts looking for people who might be homeless. Weikel said they organize the search before hand by finding out popular places for people to sleep like parks and vacant lots, but they also rely on people who are sleeping on the streets to tell them where else to look.

“So you’re going to have reactions from ‘I want nothing to do with you’ because they don’t trust, they don’t believe anything is going to change for whatever reasons to ‘yes, I’ll do this and let me take you to ten of my friends.”

People who don’t have a home or who are living with someone else can call a phone bank to report their situation. Volunteers will take calls on Thursday from 4:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. The number to call is 1-800-528-0808.

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