How long have you been living on the streets?

Volunteers to count homeless population in Pasco County.
On Jan. 22, at least 170 volunteers will attempt to count the Pasco County homeless population. The homeless couple above were photographed in Hudson in 2013. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
On Jan. 22, at least 170 volunteers will attempt to count the Pasco County homeless population. The homeless couple above were photographed in Hudson in 2013. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published January 17

NEW PORT RICHEY — Sometimes you don’t have to look too far to find the homeless in Pasco County. They’re right on the U.S. 19 median, seeking a donation by holding a hand-printed cardboard sign.

Other times, they scatter in the early morning, departing a camp in the woods to spend the day at various locations. They don’t return until after dark.

And sometimes, they come right to your door. That happens as often as 35 times a day, five days a week at the Pine Street address of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County. People come seeking a shower, food, clothing or a roof over their heads.

They are people like Christine Menento, 46, and her traveling companion, who identified himself as Josh, 36. They came to the coalition last week on a day when the overnight temperatures would drop to 44 degrees.

They weren’t from Pasco County and didn’t plan to stay long. They had been in Ohio and Kentucky, but now were traveling by bicycle after leaving Charlotte County. They’ve been homeless for more than two years, she said. Even when Josh worked two jobs as a restaurant cook in Ohio, they ended up spending as much as $400 weekly “hotel hopping.’’

They took a shower, picked up blankets, clean socks and shoes, some packaged “meals ready to eat’’ and were on their way. Their plan for the evening? Sleep in the woods.

Exactly how many people in Pasco County are homeless in 2019 is unknown, but on Jan. 22, at least 170 volunteers, working in teams of two, will fan out across the county to try to obtain an accurate count. For information on volunteering, click here.

The volunteers will visit known camps as early at 6 a.m. and then go to bus shelters, library branches, parks, food pantries, the rear of shopping centers and other locations where the homeless might gather. The volunteers will work in three, four-hour shifts and end the day by visiting camps again in the evening.

Known as a point-in-time count, the coalition tries every two years to gauge the size of the homeless population, with an emphasis on the number of people considered unsheltered.

These aren't the people in temporary quarters. These are people living on the streets. The numbers have fluctuated from as low as 860 in 2015 to more than 4,100 four years earlier. The last point-in-time count in 2017 listed 2,415 people as unsheltered in Pasco County.

The state Department of Children and Families, in years past, “haven’t had any confidence in our numbers,’’ said Don Anderson who signed on as executive director of the homeless coalition a little over a year ago.

This year, the coalition is using map from Pasco County and data on calls for service from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to pinpoint suspected hot spots. Volunteers also are using software that allows each interaction with a homeless person to be dated and time-stamped as a way of avoiding duplication.

Those who agree will be asked questions about how long they’ve been homeless and where they’ve lived previously. And they'll have their photographs taken and affixed to the survey. Volunteers will make field observations, like physical appearance or type and color of clothing, on those who decline.

"It's not an inquisition,'' said Anderson.

An accurate count is imperative to seeking state and federal aid to try to reduce homelessness, he said.

“The solution to homelessness is a home,’’ said Anderson. “And whether that’s an apartment, communal living or a house, the common factor among all of that is money.’’

The coalition’s action plan sets an ambitious goal of reducing the number of unsheltered people by half between now and 2021. Among the strategies to do that is developing a so-called low-barrier emergency shelter for single adults.

A previous plan to do that at the vacant Boys & Girls Club buildings in west Pasco met such strong community resistance that the coalition altered the project. It now will be used to shelter families and to provide one-stop assistance on job skills, financial planning, social services and other assistance to help get the families into permanent housing.

In the meantime, Anderson said he fears the demand for services will increase. Many of those who come to the coalition's offices are categorized by the United Way as ALICE, an acronym for asset-limited, income-challenged and employed, said Anderson.They are the working poor, and 42 percent of the households in Pasco County fit that category, the United Way has reported.

"They’re employed; they cannot make enough,'' said Anderson. "They can not make enough to afford a home.''

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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