NEW PORT RICHEY — Hours before sunrise, the police officers hopped out of their cars, flashlights in hand.
Slowly, they walked behind a row of three vacant houses, where one officer found an abandoned mattress. Four people trailed behind, following the officers toward thick brush. They shined their lights into a wooded area off Congress Street, behind a liquor store tagged with Latin Kings graffiti.
The officers had found people living in the area before. But this day, the count would be zero.
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At 4:43 a.m. Wednesday, a caravan of two New Port Richey officers and four volunteers left the Police Department on Adams Street. Their mission: to help the Coalition of the Homeless of Pasco County perform its homeless census. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the annual count for the nonprofit to be eligible for grant funding.
Volunteers gathered across the county for the count, armed with blankets, flashlights and a bag full of toiletries and socks to give to the homeless. About 40 volunteers began counting in shifts that began at 4 a.m., with early morning counters assisted by at least one member of a local law enforcement agency.
Eugene Williams, supervisor for the county's community development division and county representative for the coalition, said volunteers also counted homeless people at shelters including Holy Ground, social service agencies such as The Salvation Army, and substance abuse and jail diversion programs.
Ironically, the economic downturn might make it harder to find people for this year's count, Williams said.
"We went to places like Labor Ready, but we couldn't find many (homeless) people because there's no jobs," he said. "We only got three, and usually, there are about 50."
An accurate count of this year's homeless population in Pasco won't be available until next week when the numbers are tallied, Williams said.
Four volunteers — one resident and three students from Saint Leo University — and three officers who searched in New Port Richey hunted beneath the Pithlachascotee River bridge, a spot that gives homeless people a covered place to sleep and a perch to cast their fishing lines to find something to eat.
"We found three or four here last year," said New Port Richey Officer Arthur Madden, who led volunteers along with Sgt. Steve Kostas and Officer Marilyn Melvin.
Later, they headed to an abandoned mint green motel off U.S. 19. Melvin and Kostas searched a room with flashlights. When they found a bed that looked as if it had been slept in, volunteers left a blanket behind for someone who might have been living there.
Just before 6 a.m., the group wound up at an abandoned house on Manor Beach Road near Green Key Road. Garbage littered the rooms of the unlocked house, which was tagged as dangerous by code enforcement but still used by homeless people for shelter.
Last week's weather might account for why the New Port Richey group didn't find any one to count during their hour and a half trip to five popular homeless areas in New Port Richey.
"They may have gone to a shelter and aren't coming out until after the cold leaves tomorrow," Kostas said.
Instead, they came across a makeshift clothes line in the woods. Overturned Kmart shopping carts. Empty liquor bottles.
Last year, New Port Richey officers say they found three homeless people and six "leads" on more people — law enforcement-speak for evidence — like a mattress, that someone lives in a particular location but isn't physically there to be counted.
This year, the officers counted just five leads.
"We hit the places they normally hang out," Kostas said, "they just weren't here."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.