TAMPA — Advocates for the homeless found a total of 2,275 homeless people in Hillsborough County — about half the number from two years ago — in a count and recount this year.
The last count, in 2011, found 4,681 homeless people.
The good news: The drop suggests that several new efforts to address homelessness are making a dent in the number of people living on the streets, in emergency shelters, in transitional housing or in jail.
The bad news: "The count is never going to find everyone," said Maria Barcus, chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Some homeless people weren't counted because they refused to answer survey questions. Others might have been missed because the first count took place two days before the Gasparilla Pirate Fest. When the counters went to some known homeless camping spots, they didn't find anyone, suggesting that Gasparilla preparations had displaced the regulars.
"I think that there has been progress, and I think that there was also some level of under-counting in January," Barcus said Friday. "Unfortunately, we just can't tell how much is one versus the other."
The Jan. 24 count was so surprisingly low that organizers did a one-day recount last month. The recount confirmed that the original numbers were not so far off that they shouldn't be used.
Of the 2,275 homeless people that the census found:
• 944 were on the street or places not meant for human habitation.
• 387 were in emergency shelters.
• 578 were in transitional housing.
• 366 were in jail and were homeless when they were booked. That's 35 percent less than the 567 behind bars at the time of the last count in 2011.
There are other encouraging signs.
The number of children that the Hillsborough County School District reported as homeless — a group that mostly lives doubled-up with family or friends — dropped 20 percent from two years ago.
She said some non-profits had told the coalition that they have seen something of a decline, though nothing as dramatic as the county revealed.
At Metropolitan Ministries, "We're not seeing any decrease," president and chief operating officer Tim Marks said.
This week, Metropolitan Ministries' outreach center saw 160 men and women come through seeking assistance in a single eight-hour period. That's on a par with what the charity would expect in November and December around the holidays, or at the end of the month when people's benefits start to run out.
Marks participated in the count himself this year and found some empty camps near Interstate 275 near Sulphur Springs and in North Tampa. And he's seen more people being housed and local programs working together better.
"I do think, as a community, we've taken good steps," he said. "That doesn't mean that we're done in any sense."
The count's surveys offer a demographic portrait of the homeless in Hillsborough County: Nearly two-thirds are men. About five of six are older than 18, but only one in 20 has reached 60. Nearly a fifth are veterans. More than half have disabilities (about equal numbers have physical or mental disabilities; slightly fewer suffer from addictions).
But while the number of people considered to be "literally homeless" fell, the number living in precarious circumstances rose from 10,419 in 2011 to 12,843 this year. This category includes people sleeping on someone's couch as well as those in motels because they can't afford to maintain housing of their own.
"I think that's just the recession continuing to impact people," Barcus said. "Even though the economy's better, there's still significant unemployment. The hope is that as the economy improves those people are going to be able to get their own places and not be doubled up anymore."
The Homeless Coalition credited the decrease in the number of homeless people in jail to efforts by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department. Both have created homeless liaison positions to help homeless people re-connect with family, get services, look for work, apply for benefits, find housing and stay out of trouble.
In addition, the coalition said, more than 1,900 people were helped by three new federally funded programs that didn't exist in 2011:
• A veterans homelessness prevention demonstration project.
• A program to provide support services to the families of veterans.
• A homeless prevention and rapid rehousing program. Before ending in 2012, the program provided financial assistance and other services to help homeless individuals and families move into permanent housing and stabilize their lives.
At the same time, a fourth program received 300 more vouchers to provide permanent housing to households with veterans.
In Hillsborough, the homeless count has taken place every two years, but organizers plan another count in 2014 to get more data and spot trends sooner. But there will be some changes. It will take place during the last 10 days of February, after Gasparilla. With the permission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hillsborough will use a shorter survey and homeless people will be counted even if they do not answer the survey.
"We're going to do all of those things to try to get a better picture of who is really out there," she said. Changing the counting methods might not result in a larger number, Barcus said, particularly if there are improvements in the economy and in programs to alleviate homelessness.
County Commissioner Sandra Murman said Barcus has worked hard to get a more reliable count, and that helps in the planning. In past discussions about homelessness, Murman said the numbers were daunting. She recalls thinking it would take "so many years" to help all those thousands of people.
Now the numbers seem more within reach, and that's encouraging.
"We can now set realistic goals to provide housing and to provide services," she said.