Every day in Hillsborough County thousands of men, women and children go without a home. After sunset, some take shelter in cars or under overpasses. Others sleep in parking lots or on sidewalks.
About 18,000 homeless people reside in the area, according to the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, with about a quarter of those being children.
In an effort to spread awareness, two area organizations will host events for people to experience simulated homelessness.
On Saturday, Family Promise of Greater Brandon will host Box Car City at Nativity Catholic Church in Valrico. Participants will stay overnight in cardboard boxes or in their vehicles. The event will include live music, box and car decorating contests and fellowship. The cost is $20 for box campers, $50 per car. Proceeds will go to Family Promise, an organization of local Christian churches driven to help children and families escape homelessness and poverty.
"What many people don't realize is there are a large number of families here that need our help," said Bonnie Ussery, director of pastoral care for Nativity. "There are close to 4,000 homeless children within Hillsborough County public schools. People are facing major challenges, especially in the eastern part of the county."
Teens and young adults interested in helping homeless youths are also invited to participate in 24 Hours, an annual event presented by the Little Red Wagon Foundation and its founder, 16-year-old homeless advocate Zach Bonner.
The event, open to individuals ages 12 to 21, will take place from noon April 11 to noon April 12 at the Brandon Best Buy. Participants will sleep in boxes outside the store. While there, they will make backpacks to distribute to homeless teens and hear from speakers affected by homelessness.
"The idea is to give participants just a small taste of what homeless youth go through on a daily basis, to shed light on the problem and hopefully inspire them to be part of the solution," Bonner said.
Judges that will pick the top three decorated boxes, and gift cards will be awarded.
Bonner said that many factors contribute to youth homelessness, including economic hardships and family problems. Most teens living on the streets are runaways. As many as 40 percent are gay, bisexual or transgender, he said.
Bonner, who hosted the first 24 Hours event six years ago, said he expects 50 to 100 participants this year. In years past, people from throughout the state attended.
"At the beginning of the event we have everyone form a circle and tell why they are there," he said. "There is always a handful who say their parents made them or it's for community service hours, but at the end every single person has said that because of participating in the event they have a passion for youth homelessness."