Thursday, February 26, 2009

Volunteers hit streets to count Hillsborough's homeless

TAMPA -- Before dawn, about 250 volunteers hit the streets, woods, labor pools and shelters across Hillsborough to count the county’s homeless. The purpose of today’s 2009 homeless census: to determine the need out there.

Organizers expect to find a lot more people on the streets.

The count began at 4 a.m. with volunteers armed with flashlights, clipboards and sacks of clean socks to hand out.

In bright yellow T-shirts that said "Unexpected Faces Unexpected Places,'' they will spend the day shaking bushes, traipsing through woods, peering into makeshift camps, scouring church steps, visiting feeding sites and talking to homeless people they find there.

"We’re seeing more and more new faces with this economy,'' said early-morning volunteer Suzanne Cockran, who works at the Salvation Army near downtown Tampa.

In 2007, the last year of the Hillsborough census, they counted 9,532 homeless men, women and children. "Based on what other communities are reporting, we're expecting at least a 10 percent increase,'' said Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for Hillsborough's Homeless Coalition. Numbers for this year’s count will be tallied and released in a few weeks.

The homeless people they find are asked a series of questions, including where they stayed last night, what disabilities they have, what aid they receive, whether they have been in the military or foster care, and in what state they first became homeless.

By day’s end, volunteers — including Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern, who is taking the lunch shift downtown — intend to hit more than 300 predetermined locations where the homeless congregate. The census ends tonight at 11 p.m.

This year's census was delayed a month because organizers worried that police would conduct sweeps to arrest the homeless before the Super Bowl in Tampa. Mayor Pam Iorio, however, said there were no plans to conduct such sweeps and no evidence emerged of mass arrests. Pinellas and Pasco counted their homeless populations last month, but no numbers have been released.


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