TAMPA — Stephanie Miranda's first real encounter with a homeless person was at a McDonald's. She watched the man dig through trash for food.
"I was so sad I couldn't do anything for him even though we were facing each other," Miranda, 19, said.
But she found a way to help Thursday as one of hundreds of volunteers helping to count the homeless in Hillsborough County.
The census every two years helps determine federal, state and local aid and lets homeless people know about available services, said Lesa Weikel, a spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Miranda and other volunteers hope the count will remind others how many people are homeless.
She helped hand out socks and ponchos and translated for a man who spoke Spanish.
Miranda had no problem being there at 4 a.m. to help. In high school, she worked at a Subway and a supermarket on top of taking Advanced Placement classes, just to help her single mother pay rent after she lost her job.
At about 9 a.m. in the woods behind Cypress Point Community Church in New Tampa, six volunteers in bright blue shirts looked for homeless people.
One volunteer found a flashlight. Another found an old beer can. Thirty minutes later, that's all they had found.
"Yeah, we ain't got nobody out here!" one volunteer yelled.
Volunteer Hayward Davis put the flashlight back. Someone might be looking for it later.
The six loaded back into two vans. They had seven other locations to check before noon.
Davis, 47, program director fort the Agencies for Community Treatment Services, said homeless people may be out looking for food. A group of volunteers probably would find more in the evening, he said.
"They get up early, they clear out, they're panhandling," said Stephanie Ferry, 44, a case manager with the same program.
Other volunteers, including some Tampa City Council candidates, answered phones or joined volunteers for the count.
The total count won't be available for a couple of months.