NEW PORT RICHEY — Two years ago, the local homeless agency told the federal government that there were 2,415 people in Pasco County living on the streets without shelter.
The estimate came mostly from volunteers' personal observations during the biennial point-in-time count that measures homelessness on a specific day.
This year, the number is dramatically lower. Preliminary figures from the 2019 count, completed last month, put the number of unsheltered people in Pasco County at 688 individuals.
It doesn't mean 1,700 people disappeared. It means some may have taken advantage of affordable housing options or relocated elsewhere after local government crackdowns on panhandling and trespassing.
Mostly, though, the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County said it believes it obtained much more accurate data on its Jan. 22 count because volunteers used GIS mapping, mobile apps for personal interviews of the homeless to avoid duplication, and information from the Pasco Sheriff's Office identifying presumed hot spots of homeless activity.
"We have a high degree of faith in the accuracy of the (2019) count,'' said Don Anderson, the coalition's CEO. "But — and this is just as important — the point-in-time count isn't necessarily representative of all the folks who have need.''
Results of single-day homeless counts in Pasco have varied greatly this decade, fluctuating from a high of more than 4,100 unsheltered people in 2011 to a low of 860 in 2015.
Two years ago, state and federal authorities were skeptical of Pasco's numbers, said Anderson, who joined the coalition in late 2017. Anderson said, he too, wasn't comfortable with the 2017 data, because the the bulk of the count was based on volunteers' personal observations instead of interviews with homeless individuals. In one instance, he said, documents showed six people were counted as homeless after a volunteer saw them waiting at a bus stop.
But better homeless data in 2019 doesn't translate to a declining number of needy people around the county, according to a separate study. Anderson shared the point-in-time information with the Tampa Bay Times two days after the United Way reported nearly 90,000 Pasco households were struggling to pay for basic needs.
The United Way's biennial ALICE report — an acronym for asset-limited, income-challenged, employed — showed 45 percent of the nearly 196,000 households in the county are below the poverty level or earn less than the basic cost of living here. That's up from 42 percent two years earlier.
The most recent report, based on 2016 data, calculated a family of two adults and two young children would need $58,560 annually to live and work in Pasco, while the median household income is $46,264. Essentially, the report showed the cost of operating a household outpaced wage growth in a mostly service-based economy, putting more people in need.
The findings mirrored the survey results of the homeless count when individuals were asked what barriers kept them homeless. Of the 379 who answered the question, 317 said their problems were financial.
Getting an accurate count is just the first step in trying to aid the homeless. Nearly a third of those interviewed said they had relatives living outside Pasco County; half of those said they believed they could stay with family members and be housed successfully if they had the ability to travel to them.
"It's people who either came down with a loved one or boyfriend/girlfriend, and that fell apart, and now they're just here because of happenstance. They can't get back to family somewhere else,'' said Thomas O'Connor Bruno, the coalition's chief financial officer.
Diverting the homeless to their families is the easiest, least-expensive solution for the social services network, but it's not for everyone.
Ruth Reilly, chairman of the coalition's board of directors, encountered a homeless veteran when she conducted surveys on the afternoon of Jan. 22. The man said he lived in his truck, and he was on the side of the road near the Walmart store between N. Dale Mabry Highway and U.S. 41 in Lutz. He had multiple health problems and said he was on a waiting list for services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"He was embarrassed and self-conscious about being homeless,'' said Reilly. "He didn't want his family to know.''
To offer future assistance to the homeless, the coalition and volunteers from its affiliated churches and agencies plan twice monthly outreach visits to continue surveying and conducting assessments "so we understand what the real need is,'' said Anderson.
The coalition plans to provide its final numbers, including homeless people who were staying in shelters on Jan. 22, to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by late March.
"It's not just a number,'' said Bruno. "It's people. Even one is unacceptable.''
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.