LARGO — As evening approaches, Melinda Norton doles out chunks of sliced roast beef and spoonfuls of peas and corn on bright red plastic plates.
Her three children sit at a round oak kitchen table. Norton, 41, plops down on a living room couch with a plate of food. Her sister-in-law's boyfriend sits on another couch. Her husband sits in a recliner.
For the seven people living in the two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse off Starkey Road, mealtime means eating wherever they can find an open seat.
This has been life for the Nortons since they began "doubling up" with friends and relatives three years ago. They lost the four-bedroom home they rented in Dunedin when Lewis Norton, 43, began struggling to find work as a roofer and his wife ran up medical bills from a car accident.
The demand for assistance at food banks and the United Way has surged in recent months, as the financial downturn has left more residents doubling up with family and friends.
Most Tampa Bay area counties don't track the trend, but in Pasco County, the number of people doubling up has gone up a third in the past year, from 1,136 to 1,500, according to the county's Coalition for the Homeless.
Mental health counselors say the makeshift living arrangements strain self-esteem and foster tension among friends and relatives. Families move from place to place as one living arrangement goes sour and a better one turns up.
The Nortons have bounced around a dozen times among eight different places in the past three years.
"People are couch surfing until they fall off that couch and go somewhere else," said Pat Weber, executive director of the Tampa Housing Authority. "It's not getting better for people. It's getting worse."
'They're my brothers'
Going from breadwinner to boarder can be psychologically damaging to people, said Dr. William Emener, a distinguished research professor at the University of South Florida's department of rehabilitation and mental health counseling.
They've lost two cornerstones of identity: their occupation and their home. Their self-confidence falters. They worry others will see them as failures.
"If we lived in a country where 12 people in a three-bedroom house was the norm, that wouldn't be so bad," Emener said. "But the American dream is to have your own house and job, and to have privacy, intimacy and freedom."
That's what Charles Eisenhuth had for years, painting new homes in Spring Hill. Work was steady. At his peak, Eisenhuth made $80,000 a year.
But when the housing boom went bust, Eisenhuth folded his company, DC Love Inc. He moved to Largo with his sister and her husband. A week later, Eisenhuth's brother, a struggling cabdriver, moved in.
Eisenhuth found work sandblasting and painting bridges, but nothing consistent enough to pay the bills. Meanwhile, an old back injury has worsened, limiting his ability to do the type of work he used to do.
Now he survives on $162 a month in food stamps. He doesn't have health insurance, so his sister, Patricia Snyder, pays for his doctor's appointments. She also foots the bill for his car insurance and gas.
"There's times when there is tension (at home)," said Snyder, 53, an administrative assistant at a beauty school. "I try not to bring up that our finances are getting tough so they don't feel bad. They're my brothers. I don't want them on the street somewhere."
Eisenhuth, 51, hopes for a Social Security disability check, which will start arriving in about five months. "I need to get out of here and let them find their lives," he said. "It's only fair."
An increase in the number of people doubling up is also straining social service agencies. Demand has increased for caseworkers at food banks, who have seen families of four expand to eight or nine people.
"Our case loads are going up because of a need for food. … You have grandma and daughter living together," said Wanda Weber, executive director of Shepherd Center in Tarpon Springs.
The United Way of Pasco County has also seen a rise in calls from people seeking assistance with rent or a utility deposit to get their own place.
'Living in a fishbowl'
For families, the climb toward financial freedom is a steep one. If a family of five like the Nortons wanted to rent a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, it would need about $300 for a security deposit and $1,100 for the first month's rent, according to the Bay Area Apartment Association's market survey.
Families that have doubled up also miss out on the simple pleasures of living in their own home. That can cause tempers to boil over. "In terms of space, how can we have a private conversation or express intimacy if we are living in a fishbowl?" Emener said. "There's all kinds of frustration and anger that can turn into depression."
Tensions for the Nortons erupted like a volcano in June, when a fight broke out in a friend's two-bedroom mobile home in New Port Richey where 12 people were staying.
The close quarters prompted arguments about food and when the Nortons were moving out.
Lewis Norton threatened to take his family to the Ocala National Forest, where they would pitch a tent for a while. Instead, they ended up in Largo at his sister's townhouse.
These days, most of their belongings are in storage. Clothing for 10 days hangs in the closet. Melinda, Lewis and their 8-year-old son sleep on air mattresses in the spare bedroom. The Nortons' 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter sleep on air mattresses on the living room floor.
But things weren't always this way.
Lewis Norton was making $1,100 a week as a roofer back in 2001, when the family moved into a four-bedroom house in Dunedin. He and Melinda got married there. This was home.
Then his income dropped off as the construction industry did. Bills piled up, including thousands of dollars in unpaid child support. The family has crashed with friends and relatives for the past three years.
"I get up at the crack of dawn and go to construction places and try to get on the crew," he said, "but nobody's hiring."
In June, Lewis landed a job installing roofs. He works six days a week, making $15 an hour. He doesn't know how long it will be before they have enough money to move. "It feels good," he said of having a job and making money, "but it won't put us where we need to be."
That doesn't stop Melinda Norton from daydreaming with HGTV. She envisions a home in which each room has its own theme. "It's things I think about someday," she said, "when I have my own house."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.