BROOKSVILLE — It was cold Saturday morning as volunteers conducted Hernando County's annual homeless census. But none of those interviewed by volunteers complained of the weather. What many wanted was some kind of work. "I'm doing fine. I've got six jars of peanut butter," said Larry Workman, 50. "I could use a job. And a raincoat." The Mid Florida Homeless Coalition coordinates the annual census, which is needed to secure state and federal funding for support services across the county. A final tally is expected this week.
Many of the woods were empty as volunteers searched the Brooksville area. Several people said police have made it harder to live off the land this year, arresting the homeless for trespassing or panhandling.
"Most of them moved out," said Grady Moore, 51, who has been homeless for several years. "Maybe their lives got better."
While several people were willing to talk and share their stories, getting an accurate count was difficult.
"I'm going to jail for three days if they see me standing here holding this sign one more time," said Robert Clyde, 51. "I'm not robbing stores. There's hardly any work for day laborers."
One camp was empty Saturday. Tattered newspapers, a child's blue fleece cap and a Christmas ornament hung from a vine — clues to whoever might have been there before or whoever might return later in the day.
Volunteers Jim Yeske and Fred Glass conducted formal surveys as they interviewed the homeless they met. They were sympathetic to requests for work.
But everyone knew the bottom line. With unemployment in the county at an 18-year high at 10.9 percent, job prospects are bleak.
For some, particularly those who are able to stay with friends or relatives while they save up to have their own residence again, it's difficult to ask for help. These "nearly homeless" are also difficult to track.
For Rachel Sysol, 21, and her husband, Joseph Hawkins, 26, work has been difficult to find. On Saturday, they helped his mother and a friend find and load scrap metal to sell.
Sysol had worked as a cook in the Army and recently returned from being stationed in Belgium.
"We chose to come home at the wrong time," she told her husband, whose family they are staying with. "We should have just stayed over there."
But she wasn't ready to ask this group for help, saying she had some job leads later in the day.
David Strausbach, 49, worked as a contractor when he moved to Hernando County two years ago. Now, he considers himself lucky to have a tent over his head.
"Is there anything I could bring you later on?" Yeske asked, handing him a couple of Quaker granola bars.
"I need a job," said Strausbach, "just a job."