At first, the homeless are hard to find.
It's hours before dawn and chilly, with dark skies spitting rain. The city streets are empty but for alley cats and the occasional police cruiser. The homeless, a perpetual part of the workaday landscape — a community's headache or heartache, depending on your view — melted away earlier to find shelter.
Shelter being at least part of the reason we're looking for them.
Homeless advocates are readying a plan to address homelessness, a thing we have not done well so far. The plan will emphasize housing, cooperation among agencies, help from private business and calculable results. So the tallies of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative's annual count of the homeless population that had some 250 volunteers in parks, shelters and soup kitchens Thursday will be key to figuring out the size and shape of a complex problem. Expect numbers to be out in a few weeks.
At the downtown bus station across from the old cemetery, the volunteers are cheerfully persistent. "How you doing, sir? You have a safe place to stay last night?" Chris Bryant asks men shouldering battered backpacks and hunched against the wind.
"Outside," one says. "I stay dry," another shrugs. I slept in the entrance of a tall building until they kicked me out, they tell you. I have a place over by the interstate. I go behind the church. Or, if they were luckier, in a car or at the Salvation Army.
As the city slowly wakes up, word passes on some invisible telegraph and the homeless are finding us. They answer a few questions that will add up to a lot of information about who is here and why, and get a day bus pass for their trouble. Some are suspicious ("I don't like being counted," says a man walking away). Others are as friendly as if you were sipping tea on a porch, far from these city sirens and belching buses.
They give their reasons: Finances. "Family issues," says a young woman. My parents kicked me out, says a young man of 19.
They are startlingly frank. A man says he is just out of prison. Another, asked how he landed here, says, "Unemployment. And mental illness. And alcoholism." They talk of fractured families, lost chances, bad breaks, worse decisions. They have lived lifetimes. "There's a lot of people out here," says Ben Morris, 66.
A volunteer and a homeless man have a friendly chat about the Michigan State-Ohio State rivalry. They are your age. They have been somewhere you have been. They look like someone you knew, a teacher or an aunt you liked. They are ghosts — there and gone.
The count will go on all day and into the night, with a focus on getting help for veterans and tracking the youngest homeless people, who are notoriously hard to find. But seeing it from 4 a.m. is a different perspective.
"One reason I'm doing this," says Thom Snellingw, city director of planning and development and part of the predawn group, "is what I think I know about the homeless I probably don't know."
We head back to the church where we started, volunteers carrying what they have gathered. Mindy Murphy, volunteer and also the CEO of the Spring domestic violence shelter, says this will make for a snapshot of a moment, a chance to figure out what works.
You can only hope we finally do.