Coalition will count homeless in the city


Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 12:16 a.m.

Facts

AT A GLANCE: Guessing the number

  • Members of the coalition - a group of homeless advocates and social service organizations - have estimated that there are 800 to 900 homeless people in Gainesville at any given time.

  • Jon DeCarmine is convinced that the ranks of Gainesville's homeless have swelled since the 1990s economic boom went bust.
    He's sure that a growing number of people are living in makeshift camps in vacant and wooded lots. And he's certain that dozens, perhaps hundreds of Alachua County schoolchildren go home to an emergency shelter at the end of the school day.
    He just needs the numbers to prove it.
    "Ask just about anybody at any social service agency, and they'll tell you more and more people are seeking assistance," said DeCarmine, coordinator for the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry. "But without an accurate count of the homeless, it's hard to get funding to help them."
    Next month, DeCarmine and other coalition volunteers will try to do something that has never been done before - get an accurate count of the county's homeless population.
    Local residents have long suspected that Alachua County has a larger-than-average population of homeless people. And there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Homeless advocates say they know of several homeless camps in the city's urban forests. And local shelters routinely turn clients away due to lack of space.
    Members of the coalition - a group of homeless advocates and social service organizations - have estimated that there are 800 to 900 homeless people in Gainesville at any given time.
    It's a ballpark figure. And getting an accurate count isn't easy.
    Without fixed addresses, the unsheltered homeless can be hard to find. Some move from city to city in search of shelter and jobs. And a person who is living on the streets this week may have a place to stay next week - and then be on the streets again in a month.
    Even the U.S. Census Bureau can't get a good count.
    "We went out and collected information from people who don't have conventional housing," said Ed Gore, a Census Bureau planner. "We produced a report on what we found. But it's definitely not a true homeless count."
    They found 6,766 homeless people in Florida, and fewer than 100 homeless people in Alachua County. Homeless advocates say those numbers are absurdly low. And census officials acknowledge that a wide range of problems - from difficulties in defining homelessness to the weather on the count days - make the numbers unreliable. "It's not a complete count and we have never presented it as such," Gore said.
    That's bad news for local homeless shelters, where demand for aid is growing.
    "My impression is that the demand for our services has gone up quite a bit since Sept. 11," said Jim Boggs, director of St. Francis House, a 30-bed shelter. "Some of the poorest of the working poor are taking a hit because of the tough economy."
    Salvation Army Capt. Henry Hudson says the shelter's soup kitchen served 58,000 meals between September 2001 and September 2002 - up from 38,000 meals the previous year.
    Marion County shelters have been facing similar problems. That's why Ocala homeless advocates organized their own two-day count last year.
    They sent 60 volunteers to shelters - and into known homeless encampments in wooded areas of Ocala - to collect data. They also asked the Marion County School Board for the number schoolchildren who either have no address, or who were recorded as living at shelters for the homeless or shelters for battered women.
    The 2000 Census showed the homeless population there at fewer than 100.
    The volunteers counted 600 people living on the streets in Marion County - and the school board reported 400 homeless kids.
    "You have to know where to look," said Salvation Army spokeswoman Anita Winter, an organizer of the count. "There are plenty of people living in the woods, and in places you wouldn't expect. To get a good count, you need a lot of workers and a knowledge of the area."
    Alachua County homeless advocates are hoping to use the same methods in a survey to be conducted Feb. 21 and 22. And they're planning to make the event an annual one, so they can compile information that can show possible trends in the homeless population.
    "If nothing else, we need some way of seeing whether we're making any progress," DeCarmine said.
    Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@ gvillesun.com

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