HUD authorizes Hillsborough County to conduct a recount of its homeless
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03/28/13 Lisa Marzilli
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About two weeks from now hundreds of volunteers will fan out across Hillsborough County in an effort to count the homeless population – again. Due to an anomaly in the most recent survey that showed a dramatic, but unrealistic decrease in the number of homeless, last week advocates received approval from the federal government for a re-do.

Under federal law, counties are required to report the number of homeless every other year. The count done in 2011 revealed that over 17,000 people were homeless in Hillsborough County giving the Tampa area the unfortunate distinction of having the highest rate of homelessness per capita of any city in the US. Fast forward two years and the numbers are dramatically lower and too good to be true according to Lesa Weikel with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, the group that conducts the survey.

"When we did our homeless count in late January and then analyzed the numbers, we saw that there was a significant 50 percent decrease in the number of people who are literally homeless on the streets. And we checked with our frontline service providers to see how the demand for services this January compared to last January was and they reported they saw a slight decrease but nothing that matches what we found during the count. One thing I can share with you about the numbers that we saw when we started to analyze 2013 is that even with that much of a decrease showing, our numbers were still higher than places like Atlanta."

Tim Marks, President of Metropolitan Ministries is one of those service providers whose organization has not seen a corresponding decrease in the demand for hot meals, warm beds or medical care for their clients. In fact, his outreach center registered over 30,000 visits last year. He says he had mixed emotions when he heard the decrease in numbers was thought to be a flaw.

"You hope that that impact and that hard work that’s been going on for the past couple of years is starting to pay off and so you would hope that the number goes down. I take no pride in the large number of homeless; it’s something nobody in this community should be proud of. So all the agencies for the last couple of years when those numbers came out, we took a hard look at how we’re delivering our services and how can we work together and I really feel like it made a significant impact. I don’t know what the exact number is, and I don’t really worry too much about the number because we still know, we still serve people that need our help each and every day and that’s our focus is each individual, one at a time. But then again, at the same time, we hope that the number does go down."

Advocates for the homeless have several theories as to what might explain a 50 percent drop in homeless in just two years, beginning with the timing of the survey. Karen Jackson-Sims is Deputy Regional Administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the southeast.

"It’s not unusual that things can happen in a local community that can impact a count that’s being taken by a local continuum of care. In the case of Tampa though, there were a number of things that were going on. And when we set the date, we being HUD, for the count to take place, we did not give consideration to the fact that it was Gasparilla time in Tampa, Florida. And we think that impacted their count. So I’m pleased to say that yesterday we granted them a waiver, so that they can, in fact, do a recount."

Tim Marks suggested that local ordinances targeting the homeless may have also played a role.

"You know we had the homeless ban get passed, which pushed a lot of people off the streets. And so you know, maybe they weren’t able to identify as many people because prior to the ban there were a lot of people on the streets looking for help and looking for support. So that may have also had some impact as well."

I also asked Karen Jackson-Sims if the 2011 figure of 17,000 was ever questioned by anyone as being too high.

"It is possible that that number may have been too high. It could be that the last count had double counts in it. Sometimes when the count is done for the chronically homeless population, an individual could get counted as being chronically homeless and also get counted as a veteran; so one person could have ended up in two counts."

Hillsborough County’s homeless recount will take place on April 9th from 4 to 8pm as people are entering the shelters, heading to meal sites and settling into their camps for the night. Lesa Weikel says recruiting the needed number of volunteers in such a short span of time will pose a challenge.

"It won’t be quite the level of volunteers we needed in January, but it will probably between one and two hundred people. But also logistically, mapping out where people will need to go to conduct the survey, making sure all the supplies are there, deciding incentives to hand out to people who complete the survey. Right now we’re looking at bus passes, or some other item that we could use financial donations to help offset those costs."

If you’d like to volunteer to take part in the upcoming homeless count, you can sign up on line beginning this week on the Homeless Coalition’s website.

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Perhaps Ms Weikel should spend even more time helping the homeless, than breaking up home by sleeping with a MARRIED WOMEM