Monday, December 04, 2006

Volunteers Needed To Survey Homeless

By Rick Rousos
The Lakeland Ledger

LAKELAND - The Homeless Coalition of Polk County is looking for a hundred or more compassionate people to volunteer for at least one day in January to count Polk's homeless people.

The pay is lousy - there is none. But, says Judy M. Loud, coordinator of the Point in Time survey of the homeless, the real reward is the satisfaction of volunteering. "It's all about helping others," she said.

The survey is important because the amount of federal and state money budgeted for outreach programs depends upon how many people are counted.

The count will take place Jan. 22 through Jan. 26. Five Polk County areas will be surveyed for one day each during that week.

Last year, 150 people volunteered to help with the survey. So far, the Homeless Coalition of Polk County has recruited 40 people.

The coalition recently held training for new volunteers. With an office near the three downtown homeless shelters, the volunteers didn't have to look hard for homeless people, many of whom have arrived here in the past few days because of cold weather.

The next volunteer training is Dec. 12. Volunteers learn how to approach and communicate with the homeless and fill out a form for each person they interview. Some homeless people are difficult to strike up a conversation with, and the Homeless Coalition tells its volunteers that people living in shelters or in homeless camps want what everyone wants - to be treated with dignity and respect.

In the 2005 Point in Time survey, volunteers submitted forms for 749 people. In January 2006, they counted 801.

Counting the homeless is not an exact science, said Mark Spiker, the executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Polk County.

Some of the data on the homeless collected the past few years doesn't make sense. In Sarasota County, the count went from 431 in 2005 to 7,253 this year. In Hardee County, the 2005 count of 24 people jumped to 725 this year.

Spiker said the Homeless Coalition does the best it can to count accurately.

"Some people are counted twice,'' he said. "And a lot of others don't want to be counted."

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