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Census of the homeless is always a big challenge

But today's census takers will be armed with high-tech game plans.

Published January 25, 2007


TAMPA - When scores of volunteers fan out across Hillsborough County today to conduct a biennial homeless census, they will come armed with more tools than ever.

For years, the one-day snapshot of the county's homeless population was an exercise in guesswork and good intentions.

"In the past, it's been quite a challenge," said Rayme Nuckles, head of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

It still is.

But this time, the coalition is using new technologies and more detailed planning in hopes of getting a more accurate count.

New hire Jack Garrett, who previously worked at The Institute for Urban Research and Development, has overseen this year's project.

Garrett, 36, previously worked on homeless counts in Southern California and has brought new methodology and technology to Hillsborough's effort.

He and others identified nearly 350 sites across the county - such as encampments, shelters, day labor sites, libraries, shelters and boarding houses - to visit on census day.

They color-coded the sites depending on the most logical time of day to visit.

In 2005, workers identified only about 100 possible stops.

In addition, Garrett pinpointed the sites on a computer mapping program so volunteers in the field will have a blueprint of where to go on census day.

"We're doing the best we can to locate every place a homeless person may be," Garrett said. "We try to get as specific as we can. It's an imperfect science."

Duplication also has proved a challenge in past counts. Because volunteers used a simple tally sheet - one mark per homeless person - it was impossible to know if someone got counted more than once during the day.

"They could've counted somebody five times, and I wouldn't have known it," Nuckles said.

This year, organizers put safeguards in place to prevent duplication.

Volunteers will ask for basic information, such as gender, first and last initial, ethnicity, year and state of birth, marital status and where the person spent the previous night.

Ultimately, Garrett said, the results will still be an undercount, especially if the weather turns out rainy or cold.

"We know we can't find everybody on the street," he said. "We have to accept that."

But starting with a more advanced game plan means ending up with a more accurate census. And that's the main goal.

"You're always trying to perfect it. You're always trying to make it better," Garrett said. "If we don't know how many people are out there, we don't know how to effectively serve them. You can't effectively change policy."

Garrett said he hopes to keep improving the census in years to come.

He envisions a future where volunteers can do their training in online Web casts and carry PDAs into the field to gather information.

The coalition also plans to conduct in-depth surveys in noncensus years to get a fuller picture of the demographics of homelessness in Hillsborough.

"We continue to evolve," Nuckles said. "There's always ways to improve."

Fast Facts:


Homeless on rise

Estimated number of homeless in Hillsborough County, according to previous census counts. Officials say their counting methods have improved over the years:

1997 - 2,300

June 1998 - 2,016

April 1999 - 3,600

March 2001 - 5,744

March 2002 - 6,481

October 2003 - 8,782

January 2005 - 11,023

Source: Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 00:48:10]

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