One man’s reluctance to leave his tent did not dissuade Willy Smith from getting the information he wanted.
Tuesday morning, Smith, 52, helped administer the annual Point-in-Time Count of homeless persons survey at tent city, a homeless camp near the Hawthorne Trail. The survey, which asks homeless people a series of questions about their situations, is an effort to create an accurate picture of homelessness in the area.
Smith is also homeless. So are the majority of the count’s volunteers.
After a few failed attempts to bring the man out of his tent, Smith read the questions loud enough for him to hear through the plastic. Where did you sleep last night? What is the highest level of education you have completed? Were you ever in foster care? Do you have a disabling condition?
After he finished, he handed off a bag of food to the man’s fiancee and continued down a dirt path deeper into the woods and into tent city.
The survey is organized locally by the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, which partners with Veterans Affairs. It is part of a larger national effort to count the homeless every year.
The goal is not just to gather numbers, but also to better understand the situation and needs of the homeless community. The survey’s results will be released Friday.
Theresa Lowe, the coalition’s executive director, said about 200 people signed up to help this year. The coalition had to reduce the maximum number of hours someone could be paid to volunteer from four to two. Most volunteers were compensated, and they received $10 for each hour.
Though the volunteers received their money prior to delivering the survey, Lowe said she has never had a problem with people returning the surveys at the end of their shift.
The historic DaCosta house in Downtown Gainesville served as the headquarters. People milled in and out throughout the morning greeting friends and acquaintances. The survey began at 4 a.m. and is expected to continue until 11 p.m.
Deirdre Ware, 41, stuffed Ziploc bags with Rice Krispies Treats, chocolate pudding, peanut butter crackers, Vienna sausages and other food that would be given out to the people who took the survey. Ware is part of the coalition’s board as a representative of the homeless. She said she has never been homeless herself, but as a single mother of six, she understands the struggle.
She’s the founder of 1,000 Smiles, a group she recently started with a purpose of advocating for a residential building to provide services and programs for the homeless.
“This is who I am,” she said. “This is the best thing other than my own children.”