Lesa Weikel, the community relations manager for the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, said people committed to ending homelessness may volunteer to help with the 2014 Homeless Count in Hillsborough County.
Weikel, who joined the organization as a staff member in 2006, said the one-day, statistically reliable, unduplicated count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and families in the county will take place Feb. 27. She is seeking volunteers to help between 4 a.m. and 11 p.m.
“The count data helps a community understand who is and how many people are homeless and their needs,” said Weikel, adding the count is used in evaluating which programs can best help get people off the streets.
She said this year’s count data is especially critical for the community because it will be used as the baseline measurement moving forward to determine how the community is doing at getting people into permanent housing.
“In the past, most government funding, especially from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless housing and services, has not been based on the number of homeless people in a community but rather through formulas,” she said. “As HUD continues to refine their priorities and expectations, they are moving in a direction where more funding decisions will be made based on measured success of a community’s efforts in moving people from the streets to permanent housing. Private, nongovernmental funding entities and donors are also turning more to metric-driven decisions than just the numbers being served.”
Weikel estimates they will need 500 volunteers. For students trying to obtain volunteer hours for scholarships, the agency will provide a letter documenting the student volunteer time for the county. However, high school students must be accompanied by a parent or guardian during their volunteer time.
She said all volunteers have to attend a training prior to the day of the count.
During the training, volunteers learn how to conduct the count survey and the reason for the wording of questions. Volunteers participate or observe a role play, get instructions on proper attire and safety guidelines. During the training, volunteers also select their deployment site and volunteer shifts for the day of the count.
Volunteers work in teams of three or more people, including one person with more experience.
“Once the groups are formed, each group is given direction as to the locations/areas they need to go to conduct the count based on information we have about where homeless people are located,” she said. “This could include encampments in the woods, under bridges, behind shopping centers, places where meals are served, day labor locations, parking lots.”
Before she joined the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, which was formerly called the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, Weikel worked at Metropolitan Ministries.
“Having been raised to care about others and do what I can to help make the world a better place, working here allows me the opportunity to do work to help homeless people get off the street and back on their feet, making their world better,” she said.
Weikel said she has learned that there is no one type of person who is more likely to live on the streets or in homeless shelters.
The count found fewer homeless people last year, but she said the community needs updated information to make sure the resources are going where they are needed the most.
“We feel that the decrease may not have been as drastic as the results showed for several reasons,” she said. “For us, this year’s count is the data that will matter the most because it is the data from which we will measure and evaluate the community’s efforts to end homeless moving forward based on some new performance measurements and goals that are being developed.”
She said so many volunteers are needed to get the most accurate count as possible.