New Hope @ Cornerstone and Hands of Hope wants to make sure this year’s annual count of the county’s homeless on Feb. 22 is the most accurate yet.
In the overflow room at New Hope @ Cornerstone, Michael Sweeney and Linda Allen are role-playing an interaction between a homeless man and an outreach worker participating in the annual Tampa/Hillsborough County Continuum of Care Point-in-Time-Count.
Allen plays the role of the worker. Sweeney is the homeless man, stonewalling her, making her job more difficult, questioning her compassion. They’re training for this year’s count, which will be held on Feb. 22.
The count provides the most accurate representation of Hillsborough County’s homeless population. That way, the area’s needs are known and homeless advocates can get them met. But they can’t do it alone and are putting out a call for volunteers to help.
Each February, the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative goes out to communities in Hillsborough County to find out how many people are homeless in the county. The numbers
are used to track, aid and demonstrate a need for funding in a given area.
“I do care,” Allen says. “I care because I’ve been just exactly where you are now and I came above it and I’ve risen above it because someone did care for me and gave me a hand up.”
And she has been there. Almost 45 years ago, Allen, 70, was living in a station wagon on the streets of southern Illinois. She slept in the front seat, her three young children slept on a makeshift bed in the back. Her drug of choice was heroin, but she’d do anything she could find.
When she had a choice between another hit or feeding her children, she found hope and she was saved. She got clean, found work and got off the street. Now, she tries to bring others in to shelter.
So, as Sweeney continues to push her and says, “there’s no hope anywhere,” you feel all of her heart and 70 years of life when she looks into his eyes an says:
“Yes, there is hope. Yes, there is.” She tilts her head, and leaning in a bit closer and tells him, “If there weren’t hope, I wouldn’t be here.”
Making it Count
Last year, the count for East Hillsborough was held at the Winter Visitor’s Center during a nightly Friends in the Park meal for the needy. Of the 1,549 homeless counted in the county, 24 were counted in Plant City. According to local outreach workers, the number was far from accurate. This year, Jennifer Anderson, outreach director at New Hope @ Cornerstone is helping lead a charge to change that.
“We know there’s more. We served more than that at breakfast today,” she said. “We decided we needed to make sure that all the numbers were counted. We stepped up and said we’ll do East Hillsborough to make sure the count is accurate.”
Anderson said a lack of volunteers caused last year’s numbers to suffer. After the count at the Visitor’s Center, a small team went out in the local area, but they could only stay a few hours, covering limited ground.
This time around, it’s a full-court press. Anderson is hoping to organize 50 volunteers to travel in teams to the parks, campsites, and areas where the homeless are known to gather. Instead of a few hours, this year, volunteers will go out in shifts from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. There will also be a special event held at Hands of Hope, New Hope’s outreach center at 310 N. Collins Street during the same time.
“Numbers mean money, We’re applying for grants and funding that we can bring into the program and bring into the city,” Anderson said. “We also need to make the local homeless aware of services we have here. A lot of them out here in the woods, even right here in Plant City don’t know the services are available.”
The immediate goal is more services, but long term, Anderson would like to see a shelter in the immediate area. Currently, there’s no homeless shelter in Plant City or East Hillsborough, Ashley Wynn of THHI said. The most local option for shelter is Family Promise of Hillsborough, which moves locations.
Anyone seeking more info or to volunteer for the count is asked to visit thhi.org/take-action/volunteer or stop by Hands of Hope or New Hope. A volunteer training session will be held Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. Teams will include at least one veteran outreach worker and volunteers can sign up for a time that is convenient for them.
“These people are just like you and I,” Allen said. “I was one of them. All they need is somebody to care about them. That’s what they’re looking for.”