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Politics / Issues

Hillsborough County Counts Homeless Population

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Roberto Roldan
/
WUSF Public Media
Volunteer Jimmie Bizzle conducts a survey with a young man living in Gaslight Park in Downtown Tampa.

The volunteers were out early, canvassing the area near Tampa's downtown Gaslight Park while many of the people living there were just starting their day.

Volunteer Vicki Walker approached David Wozniak as he sat on a bench near Polk Street.

"We're doing a survey today to count how many folks are homeless out on the street," Walker said.

"Put me down. Yes, ma'am," Wozniak said.

Both Wozniak and his 30-year-old, disabled son have been living on the streets of downtown Tampa for years. As part of the survey, he told Walker the cause of his homelessness was drugs, he is white and he is not a veteran.

Hillsborough County conducted its annual homeless count on Thursday. More than 500 volunteers tallied up homeless people in cities across the county. Those willing to respond were also surveyed about their needs.

For Walker, who serves as minister of missions and outreach at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, the count also serves a dual purpose.

"All we're really doing is looking people in the eye, and we're smiling, and we're having a conversation," Walker said. "These are gifts that they don't often receive."

At the County Center on Kennedy Boulevard, other volunteers processed the observation and survey data. Eventually it will be compiled in a point-in-time count -- a snapshot of the homeless population in Hillsborough County during a single, 24-hour period.

"They're explaining what their situations are, how they became homeless, and what services they're in need of," said volunteer Jimmie Bizzle. "We need that information so we can relay it to government officials and more funding can be made available."

Volunteers worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in four hour shifts. Nearly a dozen of the county's largest cities and neighborhoods were canvassed and local homeless shelters surveyed all the people who came through their doors.

Since 2014, the number of people living on the street in Hillsborough County has decreased by nearly 50 percent to around 600. Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative and organizer of the count, said that may change this year.

"It's very unpredictable," she said. "We hope it's going down, but we've also just gotten out of a real severe summer with the hurricanes so we may have an increase."

The exact figures from this year's count are expected to be released in May.