TAMPA — With two children in tow, Shaunda Silas didn't immediately turn to a homeless shelter when she was jobless and couldn't make the rent anymore.
Instead, she and her kids stayed with family for four months as she tried to make ends meet in Tampa.
"I can't work at McDonald's and support my children," said Silas, 41.
Although she had no home, she wouldn't have been counted as homeless — until recently. A new way of measuring has produced a broader, bleaker look at homelessness in Tampa Bay.
Florida's official state report on homelessness in 2010 counted 16,000 people as homeless in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
But Department of Children and Families officials in the Tampa Bay area say at least 23,927 people are homeless in the three counties, based on records of those receiving food stamps or other aid who also report having no permanent home.
"That's incredible," said Angelia Mosley, a facility manager at Pinellas Hope, a "tent city" for the homeless in unincorporated Pinellas Park.
And the larger count doesn't take into account homeless people who don't get state and federal aid. The figure also doesn't include Hernando County, which is part of a different DCF region that didn't track homelessness and assistance levels the same way.
Why the different numbers? The official state homeless report is compiled by the DCF, using counts conducted by local homeless coalitions that are required every two years.
But officials in the DCF's public assistance program have started using new federal and state guidelines that call for counting people as homeless if they are staying temporarily with friends and relatives, not just if they live on the streets or in shelters.
In 2011, the new rules will also affect the local counts in each county, which previously failed to capture many of the so-called couch homeless.
DCF officials and charity workers say the driving force was a greater recognition that people temporarily staying with relatives are indeed homeless.
With local unemployment above 12 percent, "we do see a lot of 'doubled up' families," said Kelly Fuller, a housing specialist at Metropolitan Ministries.
More parents also acknowledged to the DCF they were homeless, despite fears that being identified as homeless might put custody of their children at risk, caseworkers said.
"The problem is a lot of people … move in with family, and they're struggling, too," said Barbara Green, president of the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater.
Christopher Jerome, 27, had stayed with his family in Orlando before leaving a job there to get into a trade school in Tampa. But unemployed, he couldn't afford to enroll because of an outstanding student loan, he said.
Then he couldn't afford a place to stay and wouldn't go back home to family, fearful of rekindling bad habits of drugs and alcohol.
"I wanted to do it myself," Jerome said.
That left him bouncing from sleeping under bridges to staying at shelters until landing at Pinellas Hope this fall. He counts on about $200 a month in food stamps to help get by.
More than 540,000 people in the three counties received aid through the DCF on Oct. 31, a 70 percent increase from 2007, largely boosted by a surge in food stamps.
Besides the bad economy, the increase also came as the state improved access with a larger state network of computer terminals for people to apply for aid.
That includes the Homeless Emergency Project and Metropolitan Ministries, where people can apply for benefits via state computer terminals, whether or not they are staying there. At Pinellas Hope, computers are available in a lab, too.
For Jerome and Silas, who counts on Medicaid and $380 a month in food stamps, the support is helping them rebuild their lives. Jerome was recently hired as a security guard and moved into a mobile home Friday. Silas is awaiting an apartment to open up any time. The charities are using federal stimulus money to help them with the initial rent and utilities — help they call a blessing.
They still expect to depend on food stamps. Jerome said he takes home $1,293 a month from his security job. After a few months, he'll be expected to cover the rent and utilities, a combined $700 a month.
However, dozens of newly homeless people are still seeking help — at least 80 families a day at Metropolitan Ministries. The holidays make families a little more compassionate to help homeless relatives, said Christine Long, senior program manager there.
The new year, though, will bring a change — and likely more homeless families requesting help.
Reach David DeCamp at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.