BRADENTON -- Doug Thomas, Cheryl Hedger and Barbara Thompson worked their way through the throng gathered Monday outside the Salvation Army on 14th Street West awaiting the evening meal.
Carrying clipboards, the trio were among 15 volunteers canvassing people for the 2014 Homeless Census, an inclusive survey to determine an unduplicated count of homeless individuals and families in Manatee and Sarasota counties at a given point-in-time.
Organized by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, it began at noon Monday and ends at noon Tuesday.
Besides the Salvation Army, the census was conducted at locations where homeless can be found as well as at service provider locations throughout Manatee and Sarasota counties.
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It includes adults, children and unaccompanied youth living the night of the count in places not meant for living -- i.e., streets, cars, camps -- or are in sheltered environments such as:
transitional housing; and
domestic violence shelters
Thomas, for instance, also
surveyed people online at St. Joseph Catholic Church's Food Pantry earlier Monday.
"People are generally receptive, especially over at St. Joe's," he said. "But some of the guys here are more tight with their information. There's mistrust and it's hard to work through that."
Ralph Brown was a willing survey participant.
"I don't mind," said the 64-year-old, who shelters temporarily at the Salvation Army. "I would like it to help me get a permanent place to stay."
So would Rhonda Fountain.
"I've been homeless for a few days," the jobless 42-year-old woman said. "Where am I staying? I don't know."
Among the survey questions:
Are you currently homeless?
Where did you stay last night?
What caused you to become homeless?
There were also questions on the person's military background, medical condition and forms of income.
They're not easy questions to get answered.
"You want to make them feel comfortable, explain why the survey's being taken and it's importance," said Hedger, Turning Points volunteer coordinator.
"It's helpful for them," said Thompson, a Veterans' Administration nurse.
Accurate count important
The results are reported to the state of Florida and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal, state and local funding.
Which is why officials are hoping for a more exact count this year. According to the 2103 census, the Manatee-Sarasota county region had just 2,054 homeless people -- 820 from Manatee.
"That's low because it's just a 24-hour period," said Executive Director Adell Erozer of Turning Points, whose agency served 8,000 people in 2013. "It's not going to really give you a clear understanding of how many people are homeless. Those numbers have to be extrapolated to give us a better idea."
Besides funding, the census also enables agencies to respond to unmet gaps and in needed services for the homeless and to develop community and bicounty strategies to help end homelessness.
In 2012, Florida was third nationally in the number of homeless with 54,300. California had 135,928 homeless and New York counted 63,445.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix