BROOKSVILLE — Recent state statistics show that on any given day as many as 776 people live throughout Hernando County in shelters, woods or other makeshift residences.
What's more, there's a growing number of children — 189 on a given day — who have been identified through schools as homeless.
What to do about the ever-present and growing problem of homelessness was the focus of a community outreach summit Wednesday at Pasco-Hernando Community College's North Campus. Attended by representatives from several local homeless advocacy groups, the collective message was clear: Keep working together.
In her presentation, Mid-Florida Homeless Coalition director Barbara Wheeler advised the audience to continue building a viable service network that will not just address the present needs of the homeless, but expand those services in the future.
"Plant seeds; make things grow. Make things happen," said Wheeler, who reminded those in attendance that even with dwindling resources, advocating for the homeless "is all about hope."
The summit, which was open to the public, was a joint effort between honor students at Saint Leo University and PHCC, who won a $500 grant to host the event.
Those present listened intently to guest speaker Shalamar McNair, an honor student who graduated from PHCC in May with an associate's degree in business administration. McNair, 29, told of his struggles to stay in school after being homeless for part of his final term.
"You learn that you don't quit," McNair said. "You keep going on, no matter what."
For many individuals, homelessness is defined by the struggle to survive.
Tom Brady, who three years ago helped found Joseph's House, an outreach center in Brooksville, said the stigma of being homeless has made many resistant to the kind of help his organization provides.
Each week, Brady sends out strike teams that check on homeless individuals who prefer to camp in the woods.
"We don't force the issue," Brady said. "Most of the time, people are grateful, but some are suspicious. That's just how it is. We try to respect that."
Wheeler said that the lingering recession, coupled with reductions in funding for social services, has greatly increased the number of chronically homeless individuals that past few years, and many have simply given up.
"A lot of people are at a point where they wouldn't have been a few years ago," Wheeler said. "I don't see that trend changing anytime soon."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.