Hurricane Irma's full impact on the Tampa Bay is still not clear, but a Pasco County group wants to make sure the homeless stay safe, too.
Raine Johns runs the Coalition for the Homeless in Pasco County. She and a group of volunteers canvassed the county this week to let homeless individuals and families know what their hurricane shelter options are.
When it comes to evacuations, Pasco has issued a recommended evacuation for residents living south of Fox Hollow Drive to the south county line between Regency Park Boulevard, Rowan Road, Seven Springs Boulevard and Little Road effective 6 p.m Friday; a mandatory evacuation for those west of U.S. 19; a mandatory evacuation for those north of Fox Hollow drive, west of Little Road; and mandatory evacuation county wide for special needs residents, those living in manufactured homes, RV's and anyone in a low-lying or flood-prone area.
Johns said the possibility of high winds and flooding in low-lying areas is especially dangerous for people who don’t have the option to hunker down in a house.
"We want to make sure that all of our homeless in the county know there is a safe place for them to go,” Johns said.
So this week, and through Saturday, Johns and volunteers are taking to the streets and handing out fliers as well as talking to homeless people at resource centers, convenience stores, and known homeless encampments throughout the county.
But with just under 3,000 known homeless people in the county, including 300 families, Johns said they need more volunteers to do face-to-face outreach since this vulnerable population often doesn’t have access to TV or the radio for news, and while many carry cellphones, they have limited access to cellular service and wifi, and spotty opportunities to charge them.
So the coalition is letting them know in person about the fifteen shelters throughout the county, including a special needs shelter in Hudson that takes pets. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office will also set up a space for registered sex offenders at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel. (Use the MyPasco App to see updated shelter lists. Not all shelters listed on the county website are open at this time.)
Johns said many people who are homeless are hesitant to evacuate to shelters, because they may not be able to bring all their belongings or pets. She said some have been arrested multiple times for loitering and trespassing, especially at places they’re sleeping, and are skeptical that they will be welcome at shelters.
"We want to make sure they feel comfortable about going to the shelters to make sure they're not going to be criminalized at the door or arrested, which is a big fear of the homeless,” Johns said.
Pasco Emergency Operations director Kevin Guthrie said while it's recommended everyone brings a photo ID to the shelter, it will not be required, as many homeless people don't have them.
David Tomlinson, who is homeless, usually sticks to the Port Richey and Hudson areas. He said he’s gone through major storms in Daytona Beach in the past, and encourages other people who are homeless to head to the shelters.
“But they need a ride,” he added.
The coalition is offering to help people find transportation to the shelters. The county itself is proving transportation for free to those who call the Pasco County Customer Service line at (727) 847-2411 with a request.