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Sue Carlton: Tampa's homeless census puts a number to the need

On the front porch of a boarded-up bungalow in the shadow of downtown Tampa, a woman using a rucksack for a pillow and a thin blanket against the night chill sleeps on.

She lies curled on her side, hands clasped beneath her cheek like a child, maybe dreaming of something better. She does not stir even as a group of improbable visitors gather in front of her.

They make for an unlikely sight at 4:30 a.m. on a city street littered with broken glass, a time and place generally reserved for cops and alley cats. Five of them, armed with clipboards, flashlights and sacks of clean socks, wear electric-yellow T-shirts that say Homeless Coalition.

Part of a corps of 250 volunteers and service providers, they are here to count the county's homeless, to visit shelters, labor pools, church steps, feeding spots, lean-tos, cemeteries and weed-choked lots — anywhere — to count the homeless and put a number to the need.

The woman on the porch opens her eyes and sits up. Certainly, she agrees, as if she were used to receiving these sorts of visitors in the dark, she will answer their questions for the census. Beneath her stained sweater peek bright plastic Gasparilla beads from the festivities of weeks ago.

Though the count would go on into the night Thursday, the workers on the porch have the not-for-sissies 4 to 8 a.m. shift. One of them, Maggie Rogers, who runs transitional housing for women at the Salvation Army, says it's different to see the homeless here, not standing on the street or waiting in groups near shelters, but utterly alone. "That's the real deal right there," she says of the woman on the porch. Rogers is a veteran of the count, though not so much of one that it doesn't affect her.

"We're seeing more and more new faces with the economy," a ponytailed and upbeat fellow volunteer named Suzanne Cockran tells me. "Unexpected Faces, Unexpected Places," their T-shirts say, and she is testament. You would not guess she was once in a shelter herself.

Now she has a job she loves as head custodian and community service coordinator at the Salvation Army. "There's a reason for everything," she says, and then, "Maggie, don't go straying," as the group tromps on through the dark.

On this day they will gamely take in facefuls of spiderwebs in the woods and peer into a van filled with clothes, blankets and a baby seat, clearly someone's home. They will walk near railroad tracks and talk to people not far from the sleek cruise ships of Channelside. They will explain why they are asking and hear the same refrain about what's needed: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Similar counts were taken recently in Pinellas and Pasco. In the last Hillsborough census in 2007, they found 9,532 men, women and children. Advocates expect that number to go up at least 10 percent.

Cockran and the woman on the porch sit cross-legged across from each other on the warped floorboards, working through the questions on the form: In what state did you become homeless? Were you ever in the military? The woman answers steadily. Yes, she has a mental disability. No, she was never in foster care.

When they're done, Cockran looks into her face. "Thank you," she says. "God bless you."

"Thank you for the socks," the woman says, pulling her thin blanket around her. "I sure needed them."

Sue Carlton: Tampa's homeless census puts a number to the need 02/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 6:34pm]
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