ST. PETERSBURG — The Toyota Corolla crept along Central Avenue, along with three pairs of eyes peeled for people hanging out in the dark.
At 5:15 a.m., two men lingered at a closed Sunoco gas station. They fit the bill: One had a grocery cart brimming with belongings. The other had nothing but a cup of noodles inside his fleece jacket.
The Corolla moved in.
"Hey, guys, how are you?" driver Sharon Nivens asked.
Passenger Debora Lilley sensed their hesitation.
"We're not running you off."
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Hundreds of volunteers hit the streets Friday to begin a weekend survey of Pinellas County's homeless population. It's a push done every year by homeless coalitions across the country, which send their totals to the federal government to qualify for funding.
Friday was the first day of the count here, and volunteers canvassed parks and camps and shelters and day labor sites. They visited known homeless hot spots in St. Petersburg like City Hall, Mirror Lake and Williams Park.
Volunteers start by asking each homeless person if he or she was homeless the day before. The coalition bases its projection of homeless by that total. It's a long process, tallying the numbers, making sure volunteers didn't overlap or interview the same person twice.
"It takes us a month and a half to two months because we have to put all that information in," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. "It's going to be no earlier than March."
Volunteers are advocates for the homeless, students, mental health workers. Some are homeless themselves. Some have made it off the street.
The 52-year-old used to be homeless. She uses her experience to connect with strangers and old buddies. They feel more comfortable around her because she used to be in their position.
Friday before dawn, she explained to a large group of people at City Hall that she's not trying to be "Miss Information" — she just wanted them to know she understands. If Lilley hadn't stayed at Safe Haven homeless shelter, she said, she never would have made it to where she is now — living in a U.S. Department of Urban and Housing Development home by herself.
"These are good people out here," Lilley said. "They just need a chance."
Every homeless person surveyed gets a thermos, a free shirt and an invitation to Project Homeless Connect, being held today at the Coliseum. Last year, 300 people attended. It's there that organizers get the best sense of the year's homeless situation.
Guests get a bus pass on the way in, a backpack on the way out, food and a free medical screening. They get haircuts and dental help and foot care and eyeglasses. They meet people who can show them hope.
"People on the street, they become so disjointed from all the services," said Nivens. "It's a nightmare. It's just a nightmare for them to get services. Nobody is going to get a house (today), but they may get a lead."
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Wayne McCullough is 49, and as he puts it, doesn't have time to waste.
He has ADHD, bipolar disorder, high blood pressure and seizures. He used to work in the catalog business, but he has been homeless since September when he came to Florida from New Jersey. He sleeps in front of City Hall.
Friday, he awoke to a woman offering him a survey.
He took it. And then he spent the afternoon helping Nivens, rounding up friends in Williams Park and lugging the box of shirts and thermoses to her car. He held onto his purple ticket to the Coliseum all day.
"The way I see it, nobody can help me if I don't help myself," he said.
Some of his friends would spend the night partying and not show up to the event, he assumed. But he wouldn't risk it.
He planned to take his sleeping bag to the Coliseum and spend the night there.
Katie Sanders can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.