More than 400 people have volunteered to comb Pinellas County, from its parks to its budget motels, on Thursday in an effort to take a head count of the area's homeless population.
The number of homeless people living in Pinellas has always been a matter of debate. Last year's count — a census required to receive government housing money — tallied nearly 7,000 people. But advocates for the homeless say the actual figure is several times that, and some have criticized last year's count as hastily planned and poorly executed.
Now the county is going out again, clipboard in hand, in hopes of reaching a figure closer to the truth.
Organized by the Homeless Leadership Board, this year's count has twice the number of volunteers as last year, and many have gone through training. It also has handed the task of analyzing the reams of information collected to two University of South Florida researchers, a possible corrective to complaints last year over flaws in the data. The researchers are expected to release their report in May.
"We have some new tools this year," said Homeless Leadership Board executive director Sarah Snyder. "We really want to make sure we get better numbers."
This year's count is being carried out with a slightly different focus. Volunteers will still be dispatched to different parts of the county, but there's a new emphasis on counting homeless families and young people, two populations notoriously difficult to find.
To that end, organizers are sending volunteers to 21 motels around the county where homeless families are known to stay, Snyder said.
The board has partnered with Family Resources, a nonprofit with a street outreach team that knows where to find the county's homeless teenagers. And because some of those teenagers become homeless after leaving — or running away from — foster care, organizers have also brought in Ready for Life, a nonprofit that works with foster care children aging out of the system. Some of the young people in that program have been trained to conduct the surveys, a method that boils down to sending teenagers to help find other teenagers.
Along with scouring the county's public spaces for homeless people, organizers are also counting people staying in shelters. They may be aided by the weather. Temperatures are expected to fall into the low 50s on Wednesday and remain chilly, if a bit warmer, on Thursday, weather that could usher more homeless people into the county's shelters, making them easier to count.
"We are hoping we're going to find fewer individuals," Snyder said. "Just based on anecdotal information, it seems that people are starting to find places to live.
"What we don't see going down are the number of homeless families."