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Florida Homelessness Declines Dramatically But Numbers Don't Tell The Whole Story

Florida’s Department of Children and Families counts homeless individuals at the end of each January.  They released their figures for 2013 this week, but they may offer more questions than answers.

From 2007 to 2012, homelessness in Florida declined every single year.  Starting at a peak of just over 60 thousand people, the count dropped by about five thousand people in just half decade.  But the count plummeted this year – ten thousand fewer people were counted as homeless – doubling the past five years combined.  Tom Pierce is director of the DCF Office on Homelessness, and he attributes the success to improving methods. 

“Part of that is better counts, better use of making sure we’re not using numbers in that reported count that are not literally homeless,” Pierce said.

But this brings to light a major sticking point: who exactly qualifies as homeless?  The definition and guidance for conducting counts comes from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Pierce said, “it’s a count of those individuals who were either staying in an emergency shelter on the night of the count, or were found as living on the street during that 24-hour count period.”

This one-day count is standard; all across the country agencies are directed to count their homeless population over the course of a 24-hour period during the last ten days of January.  But is it effective?

Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County said, “it’s impossible for any community to be able to reach every homeless person on the street in that timeframe.”

Hillsborough saw the largest single county decline between 2012 and 2013.  In part, that’s because they only count every other year.  But Weikel said it’s also because earlier counts were too broad.

“Because the vast majority of those numbers reported, really weren’t literally homeless we had to remove those from the previous count,” Weikel said.

With the adjusted numbers, Hillsborough County saw nearly half its homeless population seem to disappear.  At the same time, though, its count of precariously housed individuals climbed more than 20 percent.  

Weikel says a raft of federal programs to keep struggling people in their homes and get the homeless into permanent housing have helped significantly.  Pasco County Homeless Coalition Executive Director Eugene Williams agrees.

“The major change for us had to do with the homeless prevention rapid rehousing program that was part of the stimulus package,” Williams said.

Pasco County’s homeless population dropped by more than a thousand between 2011 and 2013 and Williams said these programs were the reason.

“So what we were able to do with those funds, were to keep people stably housed and to those that were homeless to rapidly rehouse them with case management assistance,” Williams said.

Shifting definitions of what constitutes homelessness complicate the counts.  But Williams and Weikel agree even if funding and methodology are still unsure, and the counts are imprecise, progress is being made.