Gary Williams is a well-read man who knows the philosophies of Karl Marx, Albert Camus and Alfred Adler.
He is also homeless.
One of 11 homeless volunteers Friday, Williams walked around downtown Gainesville asking other homeless people questions from a sheet about their living conditions as part of a national census of the homeless population. This year is William’s fourth time conducting the census.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts the census annually to determine national homelessness statistics, and the census also provides Alachua County officials with important information about the condition of its homeless residents.
The census is conducted every year in the last 10 days of January, a time when the cold typically drives homeless people to areas like shelters where they are more easily counted.
The 11 homeless volunteers worked alongside about 15 community volunteers canvasing areas with the highest concentration of homeless people — the downtown area, central Gainesville, and under bridges. Homeless volunteers earn $10 an hour and lunch money for their work.
Theresa Lowe, executive director at Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, Inc., organized Friday’s census.
“We like (hiring) people that are homeless because they kind of know how to find the locations,” Lowe said. “They know which trails to go down to find encampments and they have that street mentality so that they can connect with other people who are homeless and break down the barriers. They have the sense that when you walk up to somebody’s camp, you’re walking into someone’s home.”
Williams’ home is a tent in a forested land of private property 30 minutes by foot from downtown Gainesville. He says the owner has given him permission to live there; he can build a small campfire for himself on nights, a luxury many homeless don’t have.
At 6 a.m. Friday, Williams was at GRACE Marketplace to get instructions on how to conduct this year’s census. There, he was paired up with city commissioner Helen Warren.
After loading up Warren’s car with snack bags to distribute to homeless, the two drove to downtown Gainesville to try and speak with homeless people as they woke up and started their day.
Having been homeless in Alachua for 10 years, Williams knows the usual spots. He knows where people are likely to sleep. He knows that the Alachua County Library opens at 9:30 a.m. In the winter, the library is a warm safe haven for the homeless, in the summer, it shields them from the heat and rain. While numerous homeless people waited outside the library, Williams and Warren approached to ask them if they will participate in the census.
Some homeless people decline to take the census. The questions it asks, like if they have ever been physically, emotionally or sexually abused by a family member, are highly personal.
Sometimes the snack bags, filled with items like crackers, fruit cups and protein drinks, incline them to participate. They receive one regardless of if they participate or not.
Williams knows many of the people on the street personally. He has spent time or interacted with many of them enough to know their name and if they have mental of physical issues. Sometimes he can convince them to participate; sometimes he knows it’s not even worth asking.
“When you’re doing life without the possibility of parole,” Williams said, referring to homelessness, “you get to meet all the new incoming inmates.”
Another spot that he knows will have a large homeless person presence is the Saint Francis House. It provides services for the homeless people in the area, including food and shelter from the cold. He knows that when lunch is served at 11:30 a.m., there will be a large influx of people.
At around 2 p.m., Williams is still at St. Francis House. He talks to people as they walk by but by then many have already taken the census or refuse to do so.
A homeless woman who goes by her first name, Angel, is one such person who refuses to take the census, calling it “outrageous.”
“It’s just a waste of time. This census is doing nothing. It’s gathering information on how many they deem problematic,” Angel said. “We’re not the problem. The economy is. The politicians are.”
Still, Lowe said the information the census gathers provides valuable insight into Alachua’s homelessness problem.
“By asking, not just counting heads, but by going through and asking all the questions, we find out who’s out there and we can find out more specifically what people need,” Lowe said.
Although the census information hasn’t been entirely calculated yet, and more census takers will go out on Monday, she has some projections on what the numbers will show given what she and others have seen during their census gathering.
“I think we’re going to see more people that are sheltered and fewer people on the street. I think what we are going to see though, is that our number of people that are chronically homeless has stayed about the same,” Lowe said. “I don’t think we’ve made a lot of inroad into getting people who are chronically homeless into housing.”
To be considered chronically homeless, a person must be homeless for a time totaling a year in the last three years and also have a disability. Last year, two-thirds of homeless people surveyed were chronically homeless.
Initial observations Friday indicated homeless people this year were older and frailer than years past.
Although city commissioner Helen Warren applauds the work the city has done in the past five years bringing to life GRACE Marketplace, she recognizes there is still work to be done.
“The biggest thing is having a conversation and bringing members of the community together to find solutions and to recognize that a solution today isn’t going to take care of things a year from now. We’re going to constantly be having the conversation: ‘What’s next?’”