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Pinellas homeless population grows, according to much-delayed county report

Nearly 7,000 people in Pinellas County are homeless, according to a study released Thursday by the county's Homeless Leadership Board.

That number comes out of an unscientific count of the county's homeless population that Pinellas has conducted every other year, a requirement for federal grants. Dozens of volunteers were dispatched on one day in January to count as many homeless people as they could find. Shelters sent in their numbers, and the school district surveyed students.

The final tally is higher than the count in 2011, when the county reported a homeless population of 5,887. Still, Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Homeless Leadership Board, said the numbers, particularly those of homeless children, seem to have stabilized after a spike in 2009.

"While we still have a huge number of families that are in bad shape and are either living in motels or doubled up, we think the number may be leveling off and that's encouraging," she said.

Advocates for the homeless have for years expressed doubt about whether the point-in-time studies accurately reflect the size of Pinellas' homeless population. Snyder estimated that the real number, countywide, is closer to 23,000.

This year, questions arose about the accuracy of the data months before it was released. In letters to the Homeless Leadership Board, the former leader of the Juvenile Welfare Board, who has since retired, said the agency didn't recruit enough volunteers or pay enough attention to data quality. Originally scheduled for release in March, the report's publication was delayed by more than six months.

Snyder said her agency will conduct another count next year, rather than skipping a year, as many counties do. They have begun preparing and recruiting volunteers, she said.

Of the 6,953 people counted as homeless in 2013, more than 4,000 were considered "unsheltered," a term for people living on the street, in cars, or in abandoned buildings. Another 2,000 were staying in shelters, such as Safe Harbor in Largo or St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg. Of those, a third were children.

Getting an accurate count of homeless families is difficult. Parents often refuse to give their names to the county, for fear their children will be taken away, and unlike single people, families often stay out of sight.

In a school survey taken in August, officials counted more than 2,000 children who said they were living "doubled-up" with other families, in hotels, or in shelters. A similar number was reported in 2011. Though the students' parents were not surveyed, some of them may have been included on the day of the count.

The report also found that veterans make up almost 20 percent of the county's homeless population and that a growing number of homeless people are over the age of 60.

African-Americans were over-represented in the count. Though they make up about 11 percent of the county's population, they accounted for about 25 percent of the unsheltered homeless people surveyed. And while 84 percent of the county's residents are white, they accounted for 71 percent of its unsheltered homeless population.

Of the homeless people surveyed, nearly three-quarters said they had a disability and, of those, many said they had drug or alcohol abuse issues, suffered from depression, or were physically impaired.

In St. Petersburg, an early analysis by city officials using the point-in-time data found that the city's homeless population may have dropped. In 2011, half of the people surveyed in the homeless count came from St. Petersburg; in 2013, it was 35 percent.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or 727-893-8779.

Pinellas homeless population grows, according to much-delayed county report 10/04/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 12:07am]
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