Volunteers gathered before dawn at churches and community centers across Hillsborough County, carrying cups of coffee and pulling on bright yellow T-shirts that read, "I am counting to end homelessness."
Their task for today and into tonight: To haunt city streets and shelters, makeshift camps and soup kitchens, and tally the number of homeless people currently in the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County.
"Remember, when you're talking to people, you're in their home, even if it's a sidewalk or a piece of cardboard," said the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative's Melissa Brass as she passed out clipboards and maps to volunteers shivering outside Hyde Park United Methodist Church.
At least 250 volunteers are expected today, among them Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione and County Administrator Mike Merrill.
"The critical thing about this day is it's a snapshot of where our community is in terms of homelessness," said volunteer Mindy Murphy, CEO of The Spring domestic violence shelter, as her group set out for the downtown Tampa bus station. "This is an opportunity to figure out what works."
They found homeless young and old, mostly men but women, too, shouldering their bedrolls and telling their stories.
Ben Morris, a 66-year-old Air Force veteran — volunteers had specific instructions on getting help for veterans — said he is only one social security check away from getting his car fixed and not having to sleep outside.
"There's a lot of us out here," he said.
This year's count also focuses on finding younger homeless people — "unaccompanied youth" ages 16 to 24 — a population homeless advocates say can be particularly difficult to identify on the streets. "They hide very well," said Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the homeless initiative. "We felt we needed an extra effort because they are the most vulnerable on the street."
With outreach efforts through Facebook, fliers and word of mouth, advocates hope to get young homeless people to two "youth events" today at The Well, 1300 E Seventh Ave. in Ybor City, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The tally of homeless people won't be ready for several weeks. Those numbers will be "very critical," Weikel said. in the roll-out of a new strategy to address homelessness in Hillsborough County.
"This plan is going to have very measurable goals, so these numbers are our baseline," she said. "This is our starting point moving forward."