Local News

Homeless numbers expected to rise

SEBRING - There's no mail delivery, electricity, heat or indoor plumbing where David Herget lives.

Herget, who was seen carrying two worn bicycle tires Monday while walking down a road in Sebring, said he has been living in a tent in the woods for the most of the past three years.

A former welder, his lifestyle went downhill, he said, when he was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s and told he had six months to a year to live.

"I'm still here," he said. But much of the rest of the life he had before the cancer diagnosis has gone away.

John Thomas Cooke, who volunteered for the annual count of the homeless in Highlands County by the Highlands County Coalition for the Homeless, was scouring the area for homeless people when he saw Herget walking down the street.

As it turned out, Cooke found homeless people in a variety of locations, including outside convenience stores, camps in the woods, sitting near Lake Jackson and walking along streets.

Cooke said he would help Herget get a new bicycle.

Besides counting homeless people, he gave them bags containing such items as toothpaste and soap.

Natalie Simons, interim director of the coalition, said many of the homeless do their best to blend in with everyone else.

"They make a point to not being noticed," she said. Many of them are afraid if they are they will be run off, she said.

Herget, for instance, was very reluctant to say where he slept at night, concerned that if law enforcement found the location, he and the other homeless would be asked to leave.

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Last year, the count found about 423 homeless people. Simmons expects the number will likely go up this year because of the economy. She said she didn't expect to have a total number until Friday.

Getting a full count is important because federal dollars to help the homeless are based on those numbers, Cooke said.

But finding the homeless remained a challenge for Cooke.

At some point, he said, he would have been among those would have blamed the homeless for their own situation, but he has learned that many suffer from mental illnesses and others spiral downward after losing their jobs.

Without a car and no bus system in Highlands County, the homeless face the challenge of "how are you going to get to work" and "who's going to hire you when you smell bad," he said.

In searching for those homeless people, Cooke walked along trails through the woods and found empty tents in camp sites with tents, old chairs and other odds and ends.

At one site, Cooke found three men. They had tents and pans for cooking food.

Although the site lacked a sink or a shower, one man who did not want his name used, showed off his shiny teeth.

The man said he's been homeless in Highlands County for months. "There ain't no work," he said.

He has applied at many businesses.

"I'd work at a fast food restaurant making minimum wage and I can't even get that."

James Thomas Downs, who is homeless, said he came to Sebring to help a friend and ended up jobless. Nevertheless, he said, he'd rather be homeless in Florida than Pennsylvania, which was his home state.

"It's better to be down here, than up there where it is so cold," he said.


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