At first, it looked like the rain might change everything.
This was Thursday before dawn, when the first shift of more than 300 volunteers in red T-shirts would begin hitting the streets of Hillsborough County to count the people living on them — in alleys and cars, in office doorways under swaths of old cardboard, behind dumpsters and in woods. This was the yearly homeless census, a snapshot in time to help determine the size of the homeless population — and the funding needed to combat it.
But while most of us slept indoors as rain pattered the windows, the homeless were fading from the streets to find places to stay dry, making it harder to find them.
I am with three intrepid volunteers tromping down a dark Ybor City street where most mornings you see homeless people hanging outside the closed cafes. This day it is a wet ghost town.
"The weather is tricking us," says volunteer Angie Toledo, who works for social services.
The three women hello down alleys and peer in abandoned buildings. Then we happen upon a tall figure in dirty jeans leaning against a brick wall. He is Robert and happy for the company, though sorry there is not coffee to be had.
They take down his answers on a clipboard: the jobs that didn't work out, a felony in his past, the six-months-so-far on the street. Actually, yes, he says when they ask what sounds like an odd question — he was in foster care as a child.
They offer him something from a red backpack — toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant. He politely declines the purple-and-green socks. Later another man will raise his cuffs to show us a pair of recently procured clean white ones over battered sneakers. Like coffee and cigarettes, this is a commodity.
The rain slows, then stops. The sun comes out and so do they. We find them camped in a bus shelter big enough for a wheelchair or shopping cart, outside a public library that will offer respite from the weather once it opens. We meet a woman carrying a can of Beefaroni and a fork, hunting a can opener. A man who is asked for his birth date is surprised to realize it will be on Friday.
Before their morning shift is over, the volunteers will be hugged and fist bumped and also avoided. "I am not homeless — period!" declares a man with a gray beard flecked with twigs. We move on.
A constant is jobs: They want jobs, they need jobs, there are no jobs. There are patterns: broken families, alcohol, drugs, mental health problems, mistakes. And surprises: Volunteer Katie Forest, a college student and EMT, tells the group about a homeless man who once told her he was catching a bus to his daughter's graduation from medical school. On this morning, we meet a man who wears beautiful silver rings on his battle-scarred and tattooed fingers.
"Everybody's got a story," says volunteer Ymeisa Holmes.
As in cities across America, it is a struggle, a back and forth. Help them. Make them go away. In Tampa, volunteers were arrested for feeding the homeless without a permit and then charges were dropped. A small park was closed after it was inundated with people with nowhere else to go.
"But we all have the same issue," says Antoinette Hayes Triplett, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. "Nobody wants homelessness."
Some good news: Last year the homeless count of more than 1,800 souls meant the Hillsborough population had dropped nearly 6 percent.
"I'm always hoping for down," says Triplett. More red-shirted, rain-slickered volunteers head out, the clouds threatening still.
Officials expect to see preliminary trends in the results of the homeless census soon and official results in May.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]