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Sue Carlton: In homeless census, stories matter

On a rainy Thursday morning two months ago, I followed a group of volunteers roaming the streets of downtown Tampa, counting the homeless.

As the sun rose and the city woke up, we sat with people who spoke frankly of their demons, of mental illness, alcohol and drugs. They stood to shake hands with us as if we had knocked on their front doors instead of rousing them from bedrolls behind skyscrapers. We met people who spoke proudly of their military service and sadly of family they hadn't seen in years.

More than 200 volunteers asked two pages of questions — gently, to my ear — about who these people were, how long they had been out there and, maybe most important, why.

"Everybody has a story," said Maria Barcus, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. "There was a reason. There were things that happened."

That day, volunteers were after a snapshot, a street census, a moment in time. The answers, once gathered, tallied, analyzed and discussed, would be the best chance for actually doing something about it.

And so this week the numbers are out, some surprising, some not. They are also, everyone can probably agree, still too many.

The number of homeless men, women and children counted that day has not changed much since 2013 — 2,243, compared to last year's 2,275. No surprise either that 69 percent were men, or that 64 percent reported they had disabilities including physical, mental, or drug- or alcohol-related problems. Most said they became homeless because of unemployment or other financial reasons.

It is worth paying attention to the fact that the number of homeless veterans and their families who were counted jumped 47 percent, their numbers expected only to grow as military members come home.

But homeless advocates saw progress in the number of families — down from 201 last year to 144 — and the number of "chronically homeless" who have been out there a year or more, for example, which fell 33 percent.

This year advocates tried to get their arms around some of the hardest to count — young people ages 16 to 24 and on the street who are hard to distinguish and quick to fade way.

That February morning, a young man — maybe a teenager — backed away from the volunteers with their clipboards and their questions, saying he did not want to be counted. Organizers put the word out about an event in Ybor City for younger homeless people, but pretty much nobody showed up. Still, they managed to count 143 young people.

Even with initiatives to get people into housing, organizers will tell you they don't expect to see real change until the 2016 count.

I know these numbers are critical, that they are the best tools and the clearest picture of the size and shape of the problem. But it's the people who stick.

At the end of our morning shift, a volunteer sat with a thin, older man in a stained sweatshirt talking about their respective hometowns. He told us about his sister and how beautifully she used to ride horses. He wondered if she still did. He wondered if she was still alive.

We asked where he would sleep that night, and he said he would get by. Maybe he'd see us next year, he said with a wave, and was gone.

Sue Carlton: In homeless census, stories matter 05/01/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 7:59pm]
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