Volunteers hit the streets last week to participate in the Point in Time Count throughout Hillsborough County, which helps assess a snapshot of the homeless population in the county.
Note: Names and locations have been redacted for the safety of those interviewed and observed.
He’d been living on the streets for more than 40 years. His skin was tan and leathery from decades under the brutal Florida sun and he shivered as a crisp morning breeze rippled through his thin jacket.
A volunteer for the Point in Time Count throughout Hillsborough County crouched before him in a bright red t-shirt and he picked up a stale beer from the night before to wet his lips as he slowly answered questions from the survey. The beer was a gift from a stranger who tossed the $3 drink to him as they left a convenience store. With a grimace he apologized for the beer, quietly murmuring it was all he had.
“How long have you been experiencing this period of homelessness?” the volunteer asked. “What would you say is the primary cause of your homelessness?”
Slowly they made their way down the list as the man explained the warehouse he worked at all those years ago closed, causing him to miss his rent and end up on the streets before he could blink. He lost everything and soon realized it was nearly impossible to get a job without proper hygiene and a physical address.
So began a long spiral of struggling to find work, landing an odd job for a week or so and then winding up back on the street. It was a cycle he never seemed able to break. Shrugging his shoulders he said graduated with honors with a bachelors degree in business. He never thought he’d end up here.
He was one of approximately 100 people counted last week for the PIT Count. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires any Continuum of Care to conduct a PIT count of anyone experiencing homelessness at least every two years. Hillsborough County completes the count annually.
The data collected by volunteers helps provide a snapshot of what the homeless population in each community looks like and helps officials know what the need is for each area so they can determine how best to work on tackling the issue.
HUD requires the count to be completed within the last 10 days of January. Hillsborough, however, has a deferment so the count will not fall on Gasparilla. Unfortunately, the new date this year fell on Opening Day of the Florida Strawberry Festival.
“For me personally, it gives me numbers, as accurate as we can get them,” Jennifer Anderson, deployment site lead and COO and director of Frontline Community Services, said. “If I can pull up actual data and show the need for grants and funding we can make a difference. It also shows outcomes when we can get somebody off the streets. We’re trying to provide the picture, we had this many this year and now we have this many. Is what we are doing making a difference?”
Anderson has worked with the local homeless community for years and she said many of those she serves are currently employed at the 11-day fair. Counting them becomes impossible so she knew before the first volunteer stepped out the door Plant City’s numbers would be down.
Though Anderson said many organizations, churches and businesses throughout Plant City routinely step up to the plate to help the homeless few individual residents ever come volunteer for the count. It’s another hurdle to leap as teams are filled with visitors unfamiliar with Plant City’s roads and nooks and crannies.
Volunteers from USF, Hillsborough County employees and friends and family of Anderson made up the bulk of the Plant City crew. The teams take five hour shifts, though anyone who wished to participate was welcome to come do so as long as they could. The first wave met at 7 a.m. and Anderson said they didn’t finish wrapping up the event until nearly 10 p.m.
One of the early teams was comprised of three Hillsborough County Park rangers. As they drove through their designated section they’d quickly pull the truck over when they saw what appeared to be the subtle markings of a trail into the woods.
Crouching as they strolled through a tunnel of woven branches they finally emerged into a clearing with a view many developers would pay top dollar to obtain.
A pond filled with leaping fish was encased in the center of this wooden oasis. Blackberry bushes lined the rudimentary paths providing a sweet snack to those who used to call the location home. Makeshift camps built from old mattress, tarps, sale signs from local stores and even a cardboard poster holder were scattered among the trees. Trash littered nearly every inch of the ground and the weathered state of the materials implied the camp had been abandoned for quite some time.
Whoever lived there, however, left in quite a hurry. A half-eaten bag of chips lay overturned on a tree stump near a soggy mattress. Children’s toys were in piles around the camps. Clothes were left hanging on a tree limb to dry. With the soft chirping of the birds and the slow ripples across the pond it wasn’t difficult to imagine why this section of woods had been chosen to set up the camp. With no person in sight, however, the rangers moved on.
As the day progressed they found a man sleeping on a cold concrete slab, using a pile of wet cardboard as a pillow. Another small group was camped out under the trees, spending some time catching up with one another as they shared stories of where they were headed next to look for work. One of them said he was a veteran of the U.S. Army.
All welcomed the volunteers with a smile, politely answering their questions and offering suggestions as to where they might find a few more of their friends.
“There’s this big myth that homeless don’t work, that they’re all drug addicts or alcoholics, but when you take the time to get to know them you realize that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Anderson said. “Everyone says you could be one paycheck away from being homeless, but you realistically could be one situation away from living on the streets.”
Just this past week Anderson met an elderly couple that came to have a free dinner in the park. The man was at least 80 years old and she said the couple was living in his car. They couldn’t find affordable housing so they were making do as best they could. It broke her heart, but she said it’s more common than most ever realize.
“Sometimes you have to walk in their shoes, you have to see the lives they are living to really drive it home,” Anderson said. “Everybody complains about the homeless, but nobody wants to do anything to help solve the problem. Everyone’s answer is help feed a meal or give them clothes, but there’s so much more they need to prepare for the job market or to help them get to the next stage. We need more Plant City people to step up and be a part of what we’re doing.”