ST. PETERSBURG — Never an exact science, counting the homeless this year is particularly vexing because of an emerging new class: first-time homeless people.
These are the families doubling up in homes and living in cars; renters whose landlords went into foreclosure; construction workers suddenly without steady paychecks.
"These are people who don't know where to go for services or where to ask for help," said Sarah Snyder, director of Pinellas County's homeless coalition.
Out of pride or fear, many of them don't even want to be considered homeless. But they are crucial to the count that determines how much federal money communities receive to care for those without traditional roofs over their heads.
On Monday, volunteers carrying surveys spread out at parks, soup kitchens and other places where the homeless congregate.
"There are always new places where we're finding the hidden homeless," Snyder said. "We can never find everybody."
This year, volunteers are using an unlikely ally in their search: schoolchildren.
Pinellas teachers stuck 100,000 surveys in kids' backpacks Monday and today, said Suzanne Hennessey, a social worker for the district's homeless education assistance team.
The surveys ask the students' parents if they are homeless.
"Even if we only get 1 percent of these surveys back from the school system, that's still 1,000 more than we got last year," Hennessey said.
She said there are at least 700 known homeless students in Pinellas right now. "We believe there are at least another 1,000 families out there that we have not identified," Hennessey said.
Finding them is the hardest, Hennessey said, because parents fear the stigma and that they could lose their kids.
"In these times, people need triage money," she said. "These are the reasons why these people are becoming homeless."
The county also uses once-homeless volunteers like 51-year-old Peg DuHoux to help with the count.
DuHoux lived on the streets for 20 years before she quit drinking almost a year ago and moved into an apartment.
During this year's count, she has noticed a lot of unfamiliar faces in the places where she once slept.
"I've seen a lot of people with monthly income or that are waiting on income," DuHoux said. "Or they've just fallen into that crack in between jobs."
James Miller, 53, is one of those people. He's been living on the streets since October after he lost his job at a lawn service company, which started cutting jobs as work slowed for the winter.
"I was one of the last people they hired, so they had to let me go," Miller said. "It's been really hard for me to accept this way of life."
And he's noticed many people like him.
"A lot of them are just good, hard-working people. We really do want to be productive, to support our families … the work's not there," he said. "I know things are going to get better. It's tough right now. It's real."
Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8452.