Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Manatee's homeless count:

Cold weather worked to the advantage of homeless advocates who fanned out across Manatee and Sarasota counties from noon Monday to noon Tuesday to take count of the homeless.

"I don't like to think of anybody out in the cold, but the weather should help us get a higher count," said Adrienne Lazeroff, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Results won't be announced until the end of March, but Lazeroff said wide participation indicates success.

"Thousands upon thousands of surveys were administered by hundreds of volunteers," Lazeroff said. "I feel we are going to have a really successful count."

That data is vital to securing more than half a million dollars in federal funds, as well as state and local grants to provide services to the local homeless, Lazeroff said.

The hope of more services sat well with homeless residents of a camp located in Ellenton, just north of Interstate 75 in a wooded area off U.S. 301.

A middle-aged man named Doug identified himself as the camp's spokesman.

"If it will help us get jobs and more services, then we ought to do it," said Doug, who declined to give his last name.

Lack of steady employment is the main reason many people are homeless, said Doug, who has been on the streets for more than five years. Both Doug and his fiancee, Kim, also a camp resident, had jobs at nearby restaurants until their employers found out they lived in the woods.

"When they find out you are homeless, they don't want anything to do with you," said Kim, who didn't want her last name used. "But we are people, too. Give us a chance. Get to know us. "

The Ellenton camp, with its wind chimes and potted plants hanging from the trees, has been home to Kim and Doug for more than two years. They share the clearing with about 50 other campers, living in a circle of tents that surround a common area defined by a tarp stretched over a tent pole and secured to the ground.

The camp is guarded by a dog named Molly.

The biggest threat to the camp is not from law enforcement, Doug said, but from what he called the "bad homeless" - the ones on crack cocaine and other hard drugs.

"People who are on crack and stuff, man, they'd come in here and slit your throat, just to get more of it," said Doug, who takes pride in keeping order.

"When anybody comes here, the first thing I ask is, 'Do you do hard drugs, any kind of hard drugs? If you do, you might as well turn around and leave 'cause that is something we don't tolerate back here. We never did and we never will," said Doug.

The Ellenton camp was one of nine surveyed by volunteers Avery Burke, Connie Insley, Mike Mahan and James McEntee, all homeless outreach specialists with Manatee Glens.

During the 24-hour period, they surveyed 41 people living in the woods.

A homeless man who said his name was Jack completed the survey at the Manatee County Central Library. He arrived in Bradenton two weeks ago from Rhode Island. Although experienced in just about every construction trade, Jack said he has been unable to find work.

"You have to get to the day labor places by 4 in morning just to get in line," he said. "There are hundreds of men lining up for work and they just don't have enough jobs to go around."

Lack of steady work was the primary cause of homelessness cited by people surveyed by Trudy Bailey, a volunteer who worked the survey table at the library.

She said she believes that past counts in recent years have greatly underestimated the size of Manatee's homeless population.

Bailey is seeing more families, especially single women with children, seek help through the Open Door, where she volunteers.

"Homelessness is not going to go away unless we do more to help these unfortunate people," said Bailey. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Most residents do not realize how many working homeless they encounter during the day, said Lazeroff.

Case in point, Lazeroff said, was the Publix cashier who checked out the sandwich platters for the press conference after the end of the census. Turns out she is homeless, too.

"No one would ever know she is homeless," said Lazeroff. "She does not fit the typical profile."

But that was the typical profile of people interviewed by Lt. William Evers of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, who volunteered for the census.

"The ones I encountered were working homeless," Evers said. "I think most people assume that if you are homeless, you are not working, but that's not necessarily true."

Homelessness is not a government issue, said Sarasota County Commissioner Paul H. Mercier, a member of the Suncoast board, at Tuesday's press conference.

"It's a community issue," Mercier said. "We need to identify the homeless, and local businesses must be part of the solution."

"Of all the people we have surveyed, there is not one of them that would not work if they could find employment," said Bailey.

The solution is not just jobs, said Lazeroff, but employment that pays a decent wage so people can afford housing.

Herald Staff Writer

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