TAMPA — Bob Drayton knows how it feels to sleep outside. He knows what it's like to sit on a bench at Lykes Gaslight Square Park and watch people with places to go hustle by.
For more than a year, Drayton was homeless.
On Thursday, he was back at the park, this time as one of about 400 volunteers who spread out across Hillsborough County to count the homeless.
"It's sad seeing all the same faces all the time," Drayton said.
The volunteers went to 11 locations and surveyed the homeless from about 4 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The data will be compiled and released in March, said Lesa Weikel, community relations manager for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Under federal law, counties are required to report the number of homeless every other year. In 2011, 17,775 people were reportedly homeless in Hillsborough.
The Tampa Bay area, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, has the highest homelessness rate in the country, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The numbers collected in annual the count are used to expand programs and housing options and to apply for funding.
This year, those identified as "chronically homeless," people who haven't had a home for a year or more, have been homeless four times in three years, or have a disabling condition, will complete a second survey used to prioritize housing options for them.
"It comes down to who is most likely to die on the street," Weikel said.
With clipboards in hand Thursday, the volunteers fanned out to shelters, encampments, streets and parks. They handed ponchos or socks to anyone who completed the survey.
Drayton's team went to Phil Bourquardez Park on Tampa Street.
A woman rummaged through garbage. Several men sprinted across the grass toward a taxi driver who passes by every day with $6, giving $1 to the first six people to reach his cab.
The volunteers also visited Lykes Gaslight park, where about eight homeless people huddled together on benches.
As he counted, Drayton remembered his time on the streets. He became homeless in 2010 and often slept at the old federal courthouse. He credits the Salvation Army, where he found shelter and employment as a maintenance worker, with helping him turn things around.
A few paces away from Drayton was Melissa Brass, a Salvation Army case manager. She interviewed LaSharn Harvey, who said she arrived in Tampa about a week ago.
"Do you have any family with you?" Brass asked her.
Harvey pointed at Sahara, the light brown dog crouched by her side.
Brass shook Harvey's hand before moving on.
Robert Gatlin, 64, sat on a bench nearby surrounded by tattered bags stuffed with blankets and half-empty water bottles. When Brass handed him two pairs of socks, he smiled.
"We don't have socks or underwear," he said. "This is a Rolls-Royce."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3386.