Counting the homeless has never been easy.
In a rural county like Hernando, it often means wandering through woods, and when you do stumble upon someone, trying to build trust in a matter of minutes.
Sometimes there's only evidence of someone who was there — old lawn chair cushions, clothing and a few empty cans — but no one to answer census questions.
On Sunday, volunteers conducted the county's annual homeless census. While three groups of people scoured spots around the county where they have found homeless camps in the past, there is a growing awareness that people who cannot afford their own housing are generally not living in the woods.
Thus, organizers this year opted for a day in which both Love Your Neighbor and People Helping People, one on each side of the county, serve free Sunday meals to the homeless and the needy.
While the exact census numbers won't be known until the surveys are analyzed, volunteers focused on connecting those in need with available resources.
"Don't give up hope," Barbara Wheeler, executive director for the Mid-Florida Homeless Coalition, told one woman as she scribbled down the phone number of an agency she thought might be able to help pay an electric bill.
The state's definition of "homeless" has been expanded this year to include individuals who are living with friends and family members due to loss of housing or economic hardship.
Those who work with the homeless are hopeful that the broader definition might produce a more accurate count.
"In the past, we believe (the census) understated Florida's homeless count," said Pastor Bruce Gimbel of Jericho Road Ministries.
"We've seen an increase in families coming for shelter assistance," Gimbel said. "And many families that are coming for food have indicated that they have other family members or other people living with them."
On Sunday, volunteers encountered both those considered chronically homeless — including those living in the woods — as well as those who are struggling as a result of the recent economic downturn.
"A lot have lost their better-paying jobs," said Donna Hunter with the homeless coalition. "They are working, but they don't have enough to keep paying the rent, the car payment, the car insurance and the electric. They just don't have enough for everything."
For volunteers who organize free dinners in Spring Hill and Brooksville, whether someone is homeless or in need of an extra meal to make a fixed income last through the month, it's all the same. "None of us really realizes how close we are to being one or two steps away from being the person that needs the help," said John Callea of Love Your Neighbor, based in Brooksville.
Across town in Spring Hill, JoAnne Boggus with People Helping People echoed the same sentiment. "It could be any of us," Boggus said. "We run into people who have never had to access the system."
And for those needing help for the first time, it's not easy to know where to go.
"Many senior citizens never thought they'd be worried about this in their lifetime," said Wheeler. "We try to connect people to resources."
According to previous census counts, the number of homeless individuals has varied over the past few years, with only 185 getting tallied last year.
But with unemployment at nearly 15 percent and record foreclosures, those who provide services to the needy continue to believe the numbers are much higher.
"Homelessness is reaching a higher socioeconomic level in our culture," Gimbel said. "It's getting closer to home."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.