BROOKSVILLE — James Coak and his longtime fiancee share a home with his sister. Technically, that is.
Although his sister has invited them to stay in the house, Coak prefers his tent in the back yard, where the couple has lived for nearly a year along with two cats, two rabbits and a dog.
"We aren't homeless," said Coak, who has been unemployed for a year. "We reside on private property."
But new laws say many of those who double up with friends and family are now considered homeless, said Barbara Wheeler, director of the Mid-Florida Homeless Coalition.
With unemployment in Hernando County topping 12 percent, local social service agencies have been busy supporting those in need. However, a census carried out in January showed a 6 percent drop in homelessness between 2008 and 2009 and a 26 percent drop from previous years.
Officials now question that data. They offer a more complicated scenario to account for the apparent reduction in homelessness during the worst economy in a generation.
The point-in-time census, which seeks to count Hernando's homeless and nearly homeless each January, probably did not include Coak and his fiancee. It also did not include any others who are doubling up.
"We all agree that the point-in-time (census) does not give us good data," said Wheeler, adding the state is looking for better ways to monitor the homeless throughout the year to get a better count.
She also pointed out that doubling up is both a help and hindrance.
"Our community is really good at taking in family and friends, which is a blessing," Wheeler said.
But, she said, it can skew results of the annual count, which affects the amount of funding a community receives to help those in need.
Another piece of the puzzle is migration. Some people have simply packed up and moved.
The Rev. Bruce Gimbel of Jericho Road Ministries said he has seen many low-income families, those who struggled even before the economy tanked, simply disappear.
"It's eerily quiet on streets I used to go down and see a lot of cars or kids playing," he said. "They're empty. It's like they're not there."
In recent months, organizations have even provided bus tickets to send struggling residents to live with family in another county or state, Wheeler said.
"When you do the math, they don't have the ability to pay a mortgage or rent," said Jean Raggs, director of county Health and Human Services.
"They don't want to be a burden," she said. "But you've got to go where you can provide for yourself and your family."
Social service agencies continue to see many new faces. Some were previously employed but now are struggling to pay subprime mortgages.
Coak, 58, lost his job at Cemex and eventually lost his apartment then his car. He rides a bike decorated with Mardi Gras beads and laden with organized bags of aluminum cans and copper wires he collects to sell for income.
Unemployment benefits and the bit of money he earns from selling cans or working as a day laborer help keep him and his fiancee going.
"There are a lot of people who don't choose this life," he said. "Due to the economy, many just don't have a chance."
Coak, who is grateful to his sister for letting him stay on her land, still has a foot in the door of his previous life. When his cell phone rings, he's like any other guy at work.
"After I finish a couple more parking lots, I'll be home," he tells his fiancee.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.