Karen Hill, director of the Marion County Homeless Council, lead agency for the federally required count, said 2018 data indicates more people with mental illness and single women and children are living un-sheltered lives.
A small army of volunteers spread out over Marion County recently to count homeless people on the street, in abandoned buildings, well-hidden camps with cardboard box floors, and tent cities that can be just a few feet away from the area’s busiest roads.
The census was taken for the 2018 federally required Point In Time (PIT) count, which provides data for local help agencies and levels for governmental funding. Gathering the data is the start of the process of getting homeless people into housing, according to Karen Hill, director of the Marion County Homeless Council, which is the lead agency for the PIT count.
Hill said one the HUD grants subject to the count is for $289.901.
Results released Thursday by the council state that 271 un-sheltered homeless people, ranging in age from 12 to 82, were living outside in the elements in Marion County when the “snapshot” census was taken.
The 2018 PIT data indicates that 41 of the people counted said they have substance abuse concerns, 47 indicated psychiatric or mental health concerns and 56 had disabilities. Sixteen people said they are veterans. One man said he has been on the streets for 24 years.
The PIT count for 2017 was 423 people, although Hill cautioned that the figures last year included a higher number of “travelers,” or people passing through the area. She also said that analysis of the data for remains ongoing.
She said the data indicates there are more people who have some sort of mental illness and more single women and children.
Hill said the PIT data will be combined with a housing inventory count, which details the number of beds available for homeless people in the county. Last year, about 560 beds were available.
About 25 volunteer census takers counted and surveyed people – or simply observed their situation if they refused an interview – during a 24-hour PIT period that began at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 25.
Concentrations of homeless people around the Brothers Keeper Soup Kitchen and the Salvation Army Center of Hope are noted in the count data.
The volunteers also made contact with homeless people on State Road 200, Northeast 14th Street, at a restaurant in Silver Springs, and in multiple spots in Belleview, along Interstate 75 and in the Ocala National Forest.
Hill said many homeless people were counted inside abandoned buildings this year.
Dennis Yonce, who was with the Ocala Police Department for more than three decades and who now serves as the city of Ocala’s Social Services Liaison, was the 2018 PIT count chairman and helped oversee the first-time use of a city GPS and data logging system to collect and store data for future reference.
Hill said Yonce knows “80 percent of the homeless people here.” He works closely with clients in the field to help them into shelter and get them off the streets.
Yonce said homeless people cannot be stereotyped. “There’s no cookie cutter,” he said.
Yonce said there are “many issues” involved with any person becoming homeless, including “bad choices.” He said his experience has been that if you give someone a chance and the resources to get into housing, most will work their way out of homelessness.
“If you give a homeless person a key (to an apartment) 85 percent will get off the street,” he said.
Yonce regularly visits areas where homeless people are known to congregate and reaches out to help clients in the field and keeps tabs on people in areas including around the soup kitchen.
Kitchen volunteer Ed Hamilton said that anywhere from 150 to 300 plates may be counted after the daily meal but he estimated that perhaps only 10 to 20 percent of the guests would be considered homeless.
Jane McKinnon, who was at the soup kitchen Thursday, said she has lived “outside” in Ocala for several months. She was seated in a wheelchair because she broke a femur in a fall.
McKinnon said she was a realtor here for 20 years and that her path to homelessness started when she was caring for her invalid mother and took a financial hit in the economic turndown about 10 years ago. She had no income and eventually lost her home.
“I eat here or I don’t eat at all. I drink a lot of coffee,” McKinnon said as she waited for the kitchen to open.
“I’m not happy,” McKinnon added.
She said her 26-year-old son stays by her side, which makes it hard for him to look for a job. McKinnon said she hopes to get into an apartment.
Deshawn Smith stopped to speak with Yonce near the soup kitchen Thursday. Smith said he has been clean from drugs and alcohol for several months. He said he is going to AA meetings and avoids his old drug friends, who abandoned him when he went to jail. He credits help from God, advice from Yonce and programs at a local gym for getting him out of a downward spiral.
Robert Counts, a Boynton Beach native who was at the kitchen for a meal, said he has been arrested 37 times. He said he has a hearing problem and gets a $765 monthly disability check. He said he uses “K-2, crack and weed” and spends about $800 weekly on drugs.
“I don’t work,” Counts said, He said he has stayed in an empty house and panhandles for money on State Road 200 near the Outback restaurant.
Debbie Slaton, also at the kitchen, said she has been homeless for about two years. She said she lost her job in Gainesville and sold her house for $20,000 and, along with two friends, spent the money. She said she occasionally uses drugs and that a “desire” to stop using is all that could make her quit.
“I have four grown children,” Slaton said. She said she hopes to get a bicycle through a program at First United Methodist Church in Ocala.
Yonce also provided a tour of several camps in the North Pine Avenue area last week.
Behind a billboard at a location where the Ocala-Marion County Transportation Planning Organization says more than 25,000 cars pass daily, Yonce said two people likely were living in a trash-filled open air camp of cardboard mats. In a site about 50 feet further away, two to six people were living in a tent-like structure.
Younce pointed a spot underneath an overpass, near the top, where a nearly blind 82-year-old man with a heart ailment had been taking refuge.
“He’s at the Salvation Army now,” Yonce said.
Near the overpass, just off the railroad tracks, Gordie Porter lives in a shelter he calls a “hobo hut.” Porter, a native of Vermont, came to Florida about a year ago and has lived near the CSX tracks for about a month and a half.
“This is how I choose to live,” Porter said. He said his lifestyle is about “freedom” and avoiding the “nonsense” of running a house.
Porter said he drinks some beer and that occasionally people from local churches will bring by a “goodie bag” with foods like granola bars.
He said he has a son, age 25. He said he plans to look for work in Gainesville or Tallahassee after spring break and then return to Vermont to see his granddaughter, who will soon turn 1-year-old.
“I hope to be a better grandfather than father,” he said.
Tanya Murillo, a case manager with the Marion County Homeless Council and a count volunteer, said she has done the count for four years and continues to analyze the “why” of homelessness.
Hill said the count is one more building block in helping the homeless.
“We have a lot of success stories of getting people into housing,” she said.
To learn more about the organization, call 732-1369 or visit https://www.mchcfl.org.