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Census takers say rising numbers and dwindling resources are making it harder to offer assistance.
By CHANDRA BROADWATER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 29, 2008
[Lance Aram Rothstein | Times]
Howie Peterson stood there looking at the picture of the home he used to have. Back in Chicago, the carpenter built the two-story house with his own hands. But it went to his ex-wife after the divorce.
With one of those same hands on a can of Natural Ice beer in his jacket pocket and the other holding the picture, the 52-year-old talked Saturday morning about life before the woods.
"I came here to find more work," Peterson said. "I did, and the money was good for a while. But then it stopped."
The damp soil numbed his toes as the tall trees overhead helped break the rain beginning to fall. The night before was cold, but not as cold as the night before that.
For the last year he's been living in a tent in the woods near Brooksville, in one of several homeless camps in Hernando County. Over the weekend, Peterson and his camp neighbors, Grady Moore and girlfriend Susan Seiwell, helped local volunteers find and count people like themselves.
The Mid-Florida Homeless Coalition organized the annual census, along with the help of groups such as Love Your Neighbor, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent De Paul. About 30 volunteers fanned across the county, hoping to get a better grasp of the situation in Hernando for more resources.
They joined groups across the region, state and country doing the same. The last week of January is typically the time such counts are taken, explained coalition director Barbara Wheeler, who noted that this year there were many more volunteers to help than in past years.
"It's tougher and tougher getting dollars into our community," Wheeler said. "It's hard to compete against St. Petersburg and Tampa. Our challenge is to tell our story to get those desperately needed resources."
Once she gets accurate numbers, Wheeler said, the goal is to help Hernando groups figure out what kind of resources are needed in the county.
"There's just not a lot of resources in Hernando County," said John Callea, of the Love Your Neighbor nonprofit based in Brooksville. The group recently started providing the homeless and poor residents in the county with a weekly Sunday dinner.
"From what I can gather, we've depleted some of our resources while the population has increased," Callea said. "And it's not just the homeless. It's the people who are a paycheck away."
While the results from the weekend count aren't yet tallied, Wheeler expects this year's numbers to go up. Last year's numbers show that on any given day there are at least 250 homeless people living throughout Hernando. Some are military veterans, while others have alcohol and drug addictions or suffer from mental illnesses. The majority live in or around Brooksville, where work at day labor jobs and other services are more easily accessible.
Peterson and his friends live off U.S. 41, near downtown Brooksville. The tent he shares with his girlfriend, Seiwell, is covered with a blue tarp for added protection against the rain.
So is the rusty, roofless burned out van that Moore, Peterson's other neighbor, has claimed as his home for the last year. The trio, with a fourth neighbor, found an old couch they dragged back into the woods for their common area in front of the fire pit.
Empty ready-to-eat meal packets and grapefruit halves littered the ground. Like anyone else making excuses to visitors for an unkempt home, Moore said that he and the others try to keep their area neat.
At 50, the former Marine has been homeless on and off for 27 years. He's lived under porches and made it through the freezing winters in Michigan, where he spent most of his life. He's been homeless in Brooksville for the last two years.
Moore gets by picking up cans along the roadways, or selling scrap metal that he and Peterson find. At the moment, he's helping someone fix a car engine. He said it's not so bad living in the woods.
But any way he can help others out, he said he'll do it.
"We wanted to help," Moore said, sitting on the ledge of his van. "That's why we're doing this. You got to help people out. You can't kick them when they're down."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com or 352848-1432.
How to help
For more information about homelessness in Hernando County, or to help, contact the Mid Florida Homeless Coalition at (352) 860-2308.
[Last modified January 28, 2008, 23:27:12]