Plant City’s Hands of Hope took over coordination for East Hillsborough and enlisted more than 50 volunteers to boost the Homeless Point-in-Time count’s accuracy.
The sun began its slow descent across Plant City last Thursday as three of the more than 50 volunteers participating in the Tampa/Hillsborough County Continuum of Care Point-in-Time-Count stopped for a needed break in the grass outside the Winter Visitor’s Center.
They were approaching their twelfth hour of walking through the city and making trips to the parks and campsites East Hillsborough’s homeless population are known to gather in. They showed no signs of slowing and no signs of fatigue. They were ready and eager to get back out for another four hours or whatever it would take to get the job done.
“I’m staying until Miss Jen kicks me out,” Allie Hayes said. “I’ve been looking forward to today. I’m real excited.”
The annual count is ordered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It keeps track of local homeless populations
throughout the country and helps get resources properly allocated. Locally, it’s run by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative with deployment leads in different zones.
Last year, the count netted 1,549 homeless throughout the county, with only 24 counted in the Plant City/East Hillsborough area. Local homeless advocate and Hands of Hope outreach director Jennifer Anderson knew there were more out there and put a call out for volunteers to help intensify the count this year. Preliminary numbers more than tripled last year’s 24, standing at almost 80.
“There was a bit of a learning curve and there’s some things we can tweak to make better,” Anderson said. “But we had some great volunteers and all-in-all I’m really happy with it.
Much of the count’s success, Anderson said, was due to volunteer groups braving campsites hidden in wooded areas and willing to work long hours trekking the city’s streets. Having current and previous homeless men and women, like Hayes and her boyfriend Patrick Baxter, helped, too.
Hayes, Baxter and others acted as scouts, leading volunteer groups to known sites and acting as bridges to the sometimes-guarded homeless population. When Hayes says “the struggle is real,” it’s not an ironic phrase highlighting first-world problems, she means it. She knows the stigma attached to homelessness. She’s heard it all before: “You got yourself into this” and “why don’t you just get a job.” She’s seen the dirty, judgmental looks people give her, but remains hopeful that she can pull herself out of the difficult cycle of walking from place to place in search of shelter for the night and food to survive, lugging around what few possessions you have left.
It’s difficult to break the cycle when your time is consumed by trying to survive and it’s hard to fill out job applications when you can’t
put an address on a tent or a tree.
“I’m not homeless. I’m address-challenged,” she said. “It’s hard to find a job when you don’t have clean clothes and you haven’t showered for a week.”
Hayes worked the count hoping to bring awareness to the needs in East Hillsborough, the family of homeless people she’s become a part of aren’t looking for handouts, she said, but hands to get by.
“We just want a chance,” she said.
Later in the evening, as Baxter led a group of volunteers through the woods surrounding Plant City, well after the sun went down, one volunteer noted that everyone makes mistakes and for those mistakes, we shouldn’t dehumanize them. Often, she said, the difference between living in the woods under an old tarp slung over a clothesline or a mansion-sized home on Walden Lake’s Polo Place could simply be one got caught and the other didn’t. Wouldn’t you hope for help if it were you, she asked.
The count went from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Some volunteers worked a few hours and some the whole day. Some worked because they’ve lived on the streets before and some worked because they remembered what it was like to get a second chance. Lesley Tipton, an ordained minister who works with the state’s corrections department, worked because it’s a calling.
“The Lord called me to give them hope when they are hopeless. I’m more comfortable walking through the ‘hood’ in jeans and a t-shirt than I am behind a lectern in a dress,” Tipton said. “I guess I’ve got a heart for the streets.”