Seventeen students, led by Elizabeth Dunn, adjunct instructor in the Department of Global Health at the USF College of Public Health, participated in the county-wide effort counting homeless individuals at six different locations in the Tampa area. During interactions with the homeless, students conducted surveys, collected data and handed out basic hygiene items.
Jay Rajyaguru, a third-year student, said meeting people who live on the streets of Tampa was a life-changing experience.
“It was eye-opening to approach the homeless, talk to them and hear their personal stories and struggles,” Rajyaguru said. “They became homeless because they went through hard times, so lending a hand, even for a few minutes, was a great feeling.”
THHI, an organization created to reduce and end homelessness in Tampa and Hillsborough County, works with local agencies to conduct a homeless count to help the state determine proper funding for shelter and services in Hillsborough County. The census is requested by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“Getting involved with THHI gave our students an opportunity to practice administering a public health survey, collect data and speak one-on-one with those experiencing homelessness,” Dunn said. “This also allowed them to think about preparedness for some of the most vulnerable populations that are in dire need of shelter and assistance.”
Student Jordan Snead said interacting with the homeless taught the students skills they cannot learn in the classroom.
“Getting out there and giving back to the community helps us become better public health professionals,” Snead said. “This type of work teaches us communications skills, leadership and philanthropy. So, I’m glad I did it.”
Homelessness is a concern in the Tampa Bay area. According to Florida Department of Health, more than 8,000 people are currently homeless in Tampa Bay. Of those, more than 1,900 are homeless in Hillsborough County.
Lesa Weikel, senior program manager at THHI, said she is grateful to USF students who volunteered.
“It takes a lot of volunteer hours and effort to canvas a big county like Hillsborough County, so we appreciate any help we can get,” Weikel said. “We do a homeless count every year to get an insight into the homeless population to learn about their backgrounds, demographics and compare that data to previous years – so we can help the state provide adequate funding.”
USF College of Public Health students have a passion for community work. Most of those who participated in the homeless count are also part of the USF Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is a program that helps teach disaster response skills to USF students, faculty and staff.
“I encourage other USF students to get out and help those in need, because this is all happening at our doorstep,” said student Anthony Woodson.
Story and photos by Vjollca Hysenlika, USF Health News