There is something sacred about sharing your vulnerability and honesty with one another.

This past week’s homeless count in Hillsborough County had a profound effect on me as our homeless neighbors shared their stories in an effort to be “counted.”

This is what worked in great favor of a successful homeless count:

  • The app
  • The willingness of our neighbors to share and be counted
  • The friendliness and miles walked by the volunteer core

It was the first time utilizing the point-in-time count app. Sometimes, technology can be distracting and lead to less robust conversations, I found the opposite yesterday. It led to a very natural flow in my conversations, more active-listening and attention on my part. Our homeless neighbors actually shared more information about their life and their struggles through this technology-led survey than sometimes I’ve found even while dining with guests at Trinity Cafe. From a user-perspective, it was less cumbersome than the paper surveys, operated quickly and led to conversations that I will long remember.

I have chosen to change names in this reflection, but each of these neighbors count by name. I know their names as they honored me by sharing them and their stories with me.

Max had triumphed over homelessness in the past. He participated and helped organize the homeless count years back and was excited to see how easy the app worked. He’d lost his job and was now homeless again.

Overwhelmingly, the themes shared by our homeless neighbors included lack of affordable housing, the criminalization of homelessness, and heavy burdens from previous and current trauma, medical and disability issues.

A mid-30s couple: Barb & Andy survived on Barb’s disability income of $800/month; Andy cared for his wife who has epileptic seizures and can no longer work. They have searched months for housing but cannot find anything they can afford as it costs three times their monthly income to get into housing.

I talked with two men who were simply in need of a list of available apartments; they have money but can’t find anything to get into. “One organization sends me here, another sends me here, and then there’s nothing available.”, he said. We talked about using the library to look on craigslist and a few resources they’d already tried.

One man shared his childhood trauma of violent abuse by his father. He said he ended up in foster care, and now he is experiencing another trauma: homelessness.

Bobby, an artist, shared he’d recently relocated to Tampa after living with his sister in Lake City for a while. He was robbed at the bus station. He slept on the streets of Tampa trying to figure things out; he was arrested for trespassing while sleeping outside in downtown Tampa. He shared he once had a beautiful wife, a home, three kids, but was now divorced. He had worked in construction and roofing for a long time, but at his last job, he fell. He was getting paid under the table, so no worker’s compensation. He nearly lost his hand, but the surgeons saved it, and he showed me his beautiful sketches that he can still create. He was making progress to get his ID and get back to work, then he was arrested a second time for sleeping on the streets of Tampa.

It’s a double-edged sword with our homeless neighbors forced to sleep on the streets. There aren’t adequate beds to offer; yet, for many, no other option. We talked about organizations he could reach out to for help, and he said he was going to rest and then try to walk to Metropolitan Ministries to get help with his ID again. Their outreach services had helped him once before, but it was stolen again.

I served with two Americorps volunteers working with the mobile outreach team at Metropolitan Minstries: Jenna and Lacey. They are inspiring young women who want to make a difference. Between the three of us, we walked about 5 miles in downtown Tampa and counted approximately 25-30 homeless neighbors during our morning shift.

I also connected with devoted volunteers during the lunch shift serving at Trinity Cafe including one of my pastors, a girlfriend from my mom’s group, and a wonderful community advocate who is serving up a storm all over town making a difference. Thank you for giving your time so generously: Justin, Erica and Susan. It’s only through these volunteers that there’s hope of getting an accurate count of our homeless neighbors in a single day!

The kindness, grace and patience each of the neighbors demonstrated as we conducted the survey reminded me that this can happen to anyone. Often, people wonder what is wrong with our homeless neighbors – why are they like that? Each of those I spoke with had difficult times, were experiencing great suffering, yet they all offered a smile, some kindness, and many times, a few laughs as we conducted the survey.

With Thomas *name changed*, I had a very engaging conversation about equity, justice and living wages. He had worked for the same company for 15 years. He said the management changed, the culture was different, and he was experiencing depression, and no longer all that interested in his work. He had never been out of work this long but at 62, in a new economy without a degree, he didn’t have many options. He said, I guess I just hold on till I get my retirement at 65.

Three years on the streets is too long to hold on for anyone. Let’s pray that his story and all the others shared yesterday “counted” and that we, as a community, recognize that every one of these neighbors count. We don’t have to offer: move-on, jail time and the shuffle between organizations as solutions. We can offer solutions that include equity, justice and dignity.

For all who participated, thank you for counting. Every one of you count.

A reflection by Mandy Cloninger