CLEARWATER — Melvin Pablo was lured to Florida by a construction job and a girlfriend. Then both abruptly dropped him.
The homeless 34-year-old spent Wednesday night behind the Clearwater downtown library and was biking nearby when Christine Hughes approached, clipboard in hand, with questions and offers of help.
Thursday marked the start of Pinellas County's attempt to count its homeless population, a requirement to receive federal housing money.
County officials dispatched about 200 volunteers and enlisted the help of police officers to get as accurate a count as possible.
The count began in the dark, with police officers trekking through wooded areas in search of homeless encampments. At 8 a.m., volunteers started to walk streets and downtown areas where the homeless congregate.
Where did you sleep on Wednesday night? How long have you stayed in this place? Counting today, how many times in the last three years have you been without permanent housing?
Volunteers took names, birth dates and Social Security numbers to ensure they don't count the same people multiple times.
The organization will have a final tally in March, said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Homeless Leadership Board.
In 2011, the last year Pinellas conducted a full-scale census of homeless people living in shelters and on the street, officials counted 5,887 people.
The same census took place in Hillsborough on Thursday, and the two counties shared a phone bank run out of Ch. 8's headquarters in Tampa. The TV station ran announcements encouraging families to call in to register — an attempt to reach those who might be too embarrassed to come forward.
By Thursday evening, they had received more than 1,000 calls, Snyder said, some from as far away as Sarasota and Venice.
Advocates for the homeless admit the counts are flawed. It's impossible to capture everyone, particularly young adults who have run away from foster care and are hiding.
In Clearwater, a group of volunteers led by Caitlin Joy, the president of Religious Community Services, began surveying homeless people in Coachman Park.
Some of the people they encountered had harsh words for the city and its mayor. Last year, Clearwater's City Council banned sitting in public rights of way. It closed restrooms in a public park — officials said they were plagued with drugs and prostitution — and planned to shut off electrical outlets in Station Square Park, where homeless people charged their cellphones.
"They're just shoving people out of town because they don't want to look at them," said Kris Kendall, 58, who said he was a Vietnam veteran who has lived on Clearwater's streets for years.
Clearwater officials say they're not trying to run the homeless out of town. The city is encouraging the homeless to go to the county-run shelter, Safe Harbor, but is meeting a lot of resistance, said Katerina Gerakios, who runs Clearwater's homeless program.
"All of these people, we've asked them if they'd like help, would like to go to a shelter, and they refuse," she said. "But we won't give up on them."