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Can you safely count Tampa Bay’s homeless during a pandemic?

Federal government is giving homeless agencies more flexibility over annual homeless census as number of coronavirus cases surges.
A group of homeless people try to stay warm outside the Boys and Girls Club of Tarpon Springs' cold night shelter in January 2020.  Tampa Bay communities will be conducting annual homeless counts in January and February, but will not rely on volunteers this year because of the pandemic.
A group of homeless people try to stay warm outside the Boys and Girls Club of Tarpon Springs' cold night shelter in January 2020. Tampa Bay communities will be conducting annual homeless counts in January and February, but will not rely on volunteers this year because of the pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]
Published Jan. 9

TAMPA — The economic fallout from the pandemic has almost certainly forced more people into living on the streets and in shelters, Tampa Bay homelessness advocates say.

But with the number of coronavirus cases spiking in Florida, this year’s count of the homeless population in Tampa Bay will be like no other.

The counts typically rely on hundreds of volunteers going into homeless encampments, downtown areas and other hotspots to capture where people are sleeping on a single night, known as a point-in-time count. But that would put volunteers and the homeless as risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas will instead limits its count on Jan. 22 to people in shelters and use existing data to project the county’s “unsheltered” population, a change approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Homeless agencies in Pasco and Hillsborough counties still plan to count how many residents are living on the streets, but with drastic changes.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative will reduce the number of volunteers from about 500 to 100 and will equip those going to homeless hotspots with personal protective equipment. In Pasco County, only about 25 staffers who work with homeless agencies will take part in the count, which will now be extended over 14 days, beginning Feb. 25.

Those going out into places such as the U.S. 19 corridor and Zephyrhills will have to undergo temperature checks first, said Thomas O’Connor Bruno, chief operating officer of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County.

“We’re going to remove the volunteers,” he said. “We don’t want anybody who is not in this system to be at risk.”

The results matter. They are used by the federal government to determine so-called Continuum of Care funding for homeless programs. Communities that show they are successful at getting people off the streets, especially the newly homeless, may be rewarded with more funding.

In 2019, Hillsborough was awarded about $6.6 million. Pinellas received $4.5 million and Pasco, $1.2 million.

The pandemic has already brought major upheaval to efforts to help the homeless and protect them from the coronavirus. The city of Tampa set up a homeless camp with 100 tents for the homeless to shelter in place. Both Pinellas and Hillsborough made motel rooms available so homeless people who tested positive for COVID-19 could be quarantined.

Related: Tampa sets up tent city so homeless can shelter in place

But what advocates want to know is whether the pandemic will reverse recent trends of fewer homeless people in Tampa Bay.

St. Petersburg City Councilmember Amy Foster, who in December was named the new chief executive officer of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, said it will be difficult to have an accurate count in the midst of a pandemic. She knows of 50 families living in motels and said the volume of calls to services such as 211 suggest that the pandemic has likely resulted in more people becoming homeless.

“For a large portion of this year, shelters have had capacity challenges because of social distancing or had periods where they weren’t accepting people,” she said. “Even if the count shows reduced numbers, I don’t believe that is the reality.”

Clipboards prepared by the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative for an annual homeless census in 2020.
Clipboards prepared by the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative for an annual homeless census in 2020. [ Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative ]

About 1,450 people were recorded as being homeless during Hillsborough’s 2020 point-in-time count. The county is one of about a dozen Florida communities selected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue with a full count so it will have an adequate sample of Florida’s homelessness situation, said Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative

The agency has spent about $5,000 on facemasks, gloves, gowns, face shields and hand-sanitizers for its staffers. The survey, scheduled for Feb. 25, will send staffers to parts of Nebraska Avenue, downtown Tampa, the University area and Plant City, and other county homeless hotspots.

Homeless agencies are still working during the pandemic to keep families in homes and to get others off the streets and out of shelters, Hayes-Triplett said. There remains a concern that the expiration of the moratorium on evictions enacted by the CDC will lead to a surge in evictions, which already have risen since Gov. Ron DeSantis ended Florida’s statewide moratorium.

Related: Hundreds of Florida renters evicted during pandemic despite CDC order

“We’re still out there doing outreach, trying to get people into homes to contribute to the reduction of those testing positive,” she said. “People will suffer from homelessness when the moratorium is lifted, so our work has to continue.”