The Florida Keys on Jan. 29 were home to 658 homeless men, women and children, according to an extensive on-the-ground census that showed a dramatic drop since 2002 when more than 2,000 homeless were counted.
Forty-six percent were living outside on their own, including two families with children, according to the 26-page report released late Wednesday.
Of the 658 homeless who met the federal definition of homeless, 353 people were living in emergency shelters such as Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter, or KOTS, the city's overnight shelter on Stock Island that can hold up to 140, and the Florida Keys Children's Shelter in Tavernier, the report said.
That left 305 people living on the streets, in mangroves, abandoned buildings or derelict boats -- with almost three-quarters of them in the Lower Keys. Sixteen percent were in the Upper Keys, while 11 percent were in the Middle Keys.
The 658 number included 105 children who met the federal definition.
But the School District reported a total of 288 homeless children in 2013, including the 182 students who lived "doubled up," meaning they share another family's home and remain in unstable living arrangements.
The School District uses a different federal definition than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), allowing for those doubled up.
Organized by the newly formed lead agency on homelessness, the Monroe County Homeless Services Continuum-of-Care, Inc., this "Point-in-Time" census was the first on-the-ground survey since 2011.
"This was by far the most extensive, exhaustive count we've ever done in Monroe County," said the Rev. Steve Braddock, chairman of the continuum. "These are good numbers. But I can't emphasize enough that it's impossible to get a Point-in-Time count with 100 percent accuracy. The nature of homelessness makes that impossible. You can't find everybody. Homeless people could be working a full-time job."
More homeless doesn't mean more funding, Braddock said. In fact, these days federal, state and private donors expect a "return" on their investment.
"They're not just throwing money at numbers," said Braddock, who is also president of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition for the Homeless.
The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (SHAL) had been reporting the annual census, as required by the primary source of federal funding for homeless services, HUD.
But in January 2012, SHAL decided to only count the homeless people staying at temporary shelters, including the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter.
Last fall, SHAL's board of directors voted to quit the role of the county's lead agency and focus all efforts on managing the city's shelter and the city-funded "Mobile Outreach Program," in which a case worker tools the streets of Key West in a Recreational Vehicle looking for homeless people in need.
Mayor Craig Cates said the census results are proof that the island is moving in the right direction, having enacted tougher vagrancy laws while expanding homeless services such as the RV, which started in late 2011.
"It just shows everything we've been doing in Key West with SHAL and KOTS and the panhandling ordinance, a combination of a lot of things is working," said Cates, who in 2009 was elected on a platform that included addressing the homeless issue. "The things that we put in place are paying off."
Cates said that SHAL has been reporting a similar lower number over the past couple of years but that some in the community didn't believe it.
"We're making it more difficult on the ones that just want to scam the system and live here," said Cates. "We're making headway on the ones that really have a problem."
More than 80 percent are white, and nearly three-quarters are men, according to the interviews that volunteers conducted while out in the field.
A quarter of the homeless found in the streets reported having alcoholism or drug addiction, while in the emergency shelters more than half of the people said they suffered from the illness.
Almost 30 percent of the unsheltered homeless cited a physical disability, while the figure for those sheltered was 16 percent.
Not everyone interviewed agreed to answer every question on the form, organizers said.
The federal guidelines do not count the 171 people in Monroe County living in "permanent supportive housing," such as Samuel's House in Key West, which houses women and children in need, AIDS Help housing programs and FKOC.
Without these housing programs, Braddock said, many of the 171 would be unable to live on their own.
In addition to the 658 counted, the census also found 99 inmates in the county jail who were homeless, picked up and arrested for violating municipal ordinances such as trespassing or drinking alcohol in public.
The county jail in 2012 held 111 homeless inmates, down from 181 in 2009, and 138 in 2010, the report said.
The county jail on Stock Island costs $80.40 a day to house an inmate, the report said, compared to the less than $8 per person that KOTS costs.
"It's clear from this that the Monroe County Detention Center is operating as a very expensive homeless shelter," said Braddock, who crunched the numbers as part of the survey.
Over the past 10 years, those 99 inmates have spent a combined 62,224 days in jail, Braddock found. The math adds up to a 10-year cost of more than $5 million.
One inmate had been arrested 77 times over the past decade, while 26 have been booked into the county jail at least 25 times during the same time period.
The all-time lower census count of 658 homeless people in the Keys didn't surprise Braddock, but he called the apparent criminalization of those without a place to live staggering.
"This is just the cost of incarceration," said Braddock. "It doesn't include public defenders, courts, law enforcement. You start doing the math and it's huge. I just believe some of that money could be directed toward prevention."