Friday, February 27, 2009

Hunting for the homeless

Last night, via a connection through Brand Tampa, I volunteered to participate in the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County's 2009 Homeless Point In Time Count. The Point In Time Count is a national effort, done every two years and is defined as "the number of people who are homeless at a single point in time, usually one day or one night". Hillsborough County was divided into four sections and teams of volunteers combed the areas between 4:00AM and 11:00PM. I had to work during the day (plus I thought it would be more interesting to do this at night) so I signed up for a late shift, 7:00PM until 11:00PM. Here's what happened.
  • We all met at Project Return's headquarters and got our briefing. The coordinator asked if we all had flashlights and everybody said yes. Except one guy who waited until after everyone else answered so he could say "I have my government issued flashlight." If someone was looking at me at that exact moment, no doubt they saw my shoulders sag and an expression of pain on my face. Every single time I do some kind of volunteer gig, I run into one person who didn't get enough attention as a child and sees this as their opportunity to perform for a captive audience. There's always just one of them. I wish I knew why that was.
  • Three of us were assigned to an area in north Tampa near interstate I-275, kind of close to the University of South Florida. It was me, a woman named Pam and a college student named Lee. I was put in charge.
  • For whatever reason, flashlight discussion continued after the briefing and as a result, we missed the distribution of meals by another volunteer organization behind a grocery store. We got there just as they were wrapping up. They said there had been about 150 people there. Although, they also said that most were not actually homeless, just needy. For the purpose of this particular survey, those people wouldn't count.
  • We did encounter a group of six men. We had brought along some toiletries and pairs of new socks as incentives to get people to participate and four of these guys passed these things up when they told us they had participated in the survey earlier that day. I don't know that I necessarily expected these guys to lie or connive, although, being honest, I guess I probably did. I'm pretty sure if I were in similar circumstances, I would have lied.
  • One guy said he receives a $935 pension from his service in the military, but that every dollar he earned counted against that pension. He said that with his poor health, the only jobs he was able to get were low end, menial labor jobs with no prospects for advancement. In which case, it made better financial sense to collect the $935 for doing nothing than to go get some dead-end, back-breaker of a job that resulted in basically the same amount of money in the pot at the end of the month.
  • We stopped at a convenience store for gas and Lee ate two gas station microwave burritos. There was a time when I could eat that kind of thing but I think those days are gone forever. Maybe it's because I'm still not 100% healthy but the smell of those bombers hit me in a bad way and stayed with me all night.
  • We headed to a wooded area behind a Perkins restaurant. We roamed around for a while and there were some thickets of brush and trees where I'm pretty sure there were people hiding but they didn't come out. We were instructed not to be aggressive so we left without talking to anyone. The guys we encountered at the first place had told us that if we went into the woods and nobody wanted to be found or talked to, they wouldn't be. And they were right.
  • We found four people living near the railroad tracks next to Skipper's Smokehouse. They said the same thing about not finding people who didn't want to be found. One guy got fairly aggressive in asking for money but we had found so few people that we were able to be a little more liberal in our distribution of the incentives and that bought us out of there without incident.
  • We drove up and down Fowler Avenue and went behind the long row of fast food joints on the south side of the street but didn't see anybody. There was a long line of cars at Taco Bell and Lee commented that he didn't know how anybody could eat there. I said, "I think you surrendered your gourmet critiquing credentials twice back at the RaceTrac".
  • We didn't find anybody else the rest of the night but saw a whole bunch of law enforcement out and about. One of the people we had talked to by the railroad tracks said the cops had been hassling them earlier in the day. I'd hate to think that the police were out trying to enforce a lower a profile from the homeless, with the knowledge that the count was taking place that day. I'd prefer tor think that was a coincidence but I guess you never know.
  • The youngest person we met was 41 and I was kind of glad. I'm not sure how I would have handled encountering homeless children.
  • Of the six people we did interview, five were men, two were war veterans (one Vietnam, one Gulf War), one had just been released from prison in November and two said they worked regular jobs.
  • We headed back, kind of discouraged, but our coordinator said not to worry about it. "There's no telling; you might have gotten five or you might have gotten 50". A friend who did an earlier shift downtown mentioned that she thought we'd find many more people at night then they did and she was amazed when I told her our results.

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