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Homeless Recount Finds Those Living in Society's Shadows

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This week volunteers led by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County ventured into Tampa and Brandon to conduct a count of the homeless population for the second time.

This recount comes at the heels of a tally in January marking a nearly 50 percent decrease in the number of homeless found. Homeless Coalition Community Relations Manager Lesa Weikel was skeptical of these results, claiming that the drop should have coincided with a decrease in demand for homeless services.

"Based on the front line workers who see the clients, they did not report such a decrease in their services," says Weikel. "We know that a lot of activities were disrupted by Gasparilla, we know that a lot of people refused to do the survey, and that people just weren't where we thought they were going to be."

This is the first recount ever conducted by the organization, which Weikel says has had to deal with a tight window for a homeless count for years--- just days before preparations for the Gasparilla festival in January.

In order to ensure a more accurate count, the Homeless Coalition made a few changes to their methodology. They have made their questionnaires shorter - down from 2 1/2 pages to one - as well as enlisting more help from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, who will participate in the count as well.

Around 5:00 in the afternoon, volunteers Justin Woods, a graduate student at USF, and Tim Marks, Chief Operating Officer for Metropolitan Ministries, searched shallow back woods and large parking lots surrounding the shopping centers around Bearss and Florida avenues. This was one of the locations organizers suggested would have a lot of homeless people.

After scouring the area for over an hour, they didn't actually see any homeless people, only signs of life; like old worn-out couches, empty beer bottles and man-made fire pits. It was obvious to Woods that someone was there at one point.  

"This was definitely someone's home," he says.

Tim Marks had some ideas of his own as to why they were not finding any homeless people.

"I'm not surprised that this is predominantly what we're seeing. It's still fairly light out. I wouldn't be surprised if people were out getting meals and are away from their camps and are coming back at night, " Marks said.

We ran into some employees behind a nearby pancake restaurant. They had gotten a break in their case.

"One of the gentlemen said two weeks ago he saw some guys in blue shirts came through and tore out all the tents," said Marks. "He says he hasn't seen a lot of traffic out there since then."

The workers were not sure who these people were, only describing them as men wearing blue Polo shirts. Woods speculated that it may have been the owners of a nearby business.

Still, looking at the remnants of life around an abandoned, makeshift campsite, Marks could not help but remark on how the homeless can be in areas where you least expect them.

"It's certainly not the beaten path," he says. "A little over five minutes from affluence and safety. Yet to the people in the woods it's miles away. It's like a different country."

After a while Woods and Marks decided to cut their losses and go to the next site recommended by leaders from the Homeless Coalition. It is not clear whether the results of the recount will differ greatly from the original, but one thing is clear: the process behind the count is still far from a science.

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