ZEPHYRHILLS - For the past three years, Pasco County had earned the dubious distinction of having the state's second largest homeless population.
In 2011, volunteers counted nearly 4,500 homeless men, women and children living in shelters or on the street. That comprised nearly one percent of the total population in the state's seventh largest county.
It wasn't something to brag about, but it helped Pasco collect an influx of $1 million in stimulus funding to combat homelessness. The funding helped rescue 1,000 people from homelessness, according to the biannual count conducted in January.
This year, the number of homeless, both sheltered and unsheltered, totaled 3,305, down 25 percent from 2011. Pasco no longer ranks second in the state.
"We're third - if you believe the numbers," said Eugene Williams, executive director of the county's Coalition for the Homeless.
An improvement, yes, but still nothing to celebrate, said George Romagnoli, Pasco County Community Development Director. "It's still a problem out there."
The 2013 Florida Council on Homelessness Report shows Pasco dropped behind Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties. Hillsborough County, which led the state with more than 7,000 homeless in 2011, has now improved to eighth place.
Hillsborough County reported 1,909 homeless people in 2013, down from 7,336 in 2011. The numbers were so low, the county's homeless coalition conducted a recount in May but came up with similar results.
Lesa Weikel, community relations director for Hillsborough County's Homeless Coalition, said Hillsborough did not reduce its homeless population by 74 percent in two years. "When we did the recount in 2013, we realized some of the data we had used in the previous counts wasn't accurate," she said.
Hillsborough was counting people who were doubled-up - staying with friends or relatives - even though they didn't meet the literal definition of "homeless." Hillsborough's coalition has revised its count numbers for 2011 and 2009, but the state kept the higher tallies in its report, Weikel said.
Both Weikel and Williams said county officials shouldn't place too much emphasis on the biannual counts or year-to-year comparisons.
"Everybody's got a different way of doing the count," Williams said. "It's hard to compare one county to another."
Since each county must conduct its count in a single day and night, factors such as weather or no-show volunteers can dramatically influence the results. In Pasco County, volunteers were told to stay away from homeless camps in the Hudson area because of an unsolved murder that had occurred a few days earlier.
"Hudson has a lot of the real deep camps and the people you don't want to mess with," Williams said.
Weikel said the homeless count is always an undercount. "You're always going to have volunteers who no-show. There's always going to be people you don't find," she said. "We still know there are homeless men, women and children on our streets at night."
The Department of Housing and Urban Development no longer bases its funding allocations strictly on homeless population.
"HUD looks at the numbers, but they also look at how many people leave transitional housing with a job, and how many still have housing six months after they leave," Weikel said. "They're really looking for performance outcomes and effectiveness."
Williams said in the past few years, Pasco has seen an increase in the number of shelter beds on the west side of the county. But services on the east side were reduced when the county forced the Chancey Road Christian Church in Zephyrhills to close its emergency shelter because it lacked proper zoning. Pastor Tim Mitchell has spent more than a year looking for a new location to no avail. The church still provides a food and personal hygiene pantry most weekdays.
Williams believes that as shelter beds disappeared, homeless people migrated to other counties. That may help explain why 161 Pasco residents stayed at Pinellas County's Safe Harbor shelter last year.
Romagnoli said more services are coming. Last year the county used federal funding to help the coalition buy a small apartment complex in Zephyrhills to provide transitional housing, and a new residential drug treatment center for homeless veterans is scheduled to open on Chancey Road in September.
Catholic Charities bought a homeless shelter in Hudson to keep it from closing. But plans for a transitional housing program by Metropolitan Ministries were delayed when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $1.3 million from this year's budget.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who chairs the county's homeless advisory board, said the veto was a huge blow to Pasco County.
"This thing that Metropolitan Ministries was putting up was important because it wasn't just a hand out, it was a hand up," she said. "The kitchen was important, it would have trained people to go out and get jobs."
Despite the veto, Mulieri points to the county's new Mobile Medical Van and The Volunteer Way on Moon Lake Road as successes. The soup kitchen and food pantry feeds 110 people daily and offers showers and laundry services to the homeless and needy.
"The homeless problem is still very much in front of us," she said.