The county's homeless population continues to rise, according to two recent surveys, a trend authorities blame at least in part on the economic recession.
The latest survey, in August, counted 594 homeless people in Champaign County, including 358 children, according to the Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care, a group that oversees homeless services.
That's a 20 percent increase from a similar count last January, which found 495 homeless individuals. Last winter's number, in turn, was 15 percent higher than the 429 counted in the January 2007 survey.
The number of homeless children has also grown. About half the 345 households surveyed this summer had children, up from 38 percent in January, figures show.
The increase in the August survey – the first summer count ever conducted – was expected, said Darlene Kloeppel, social services director at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates a national homeless count each winter, but agencies have long maintained that the homeless population rises in the summer. Those without shelter tend to move to warmer climes or bunk with relatives during winter months, Kloeppel said.
"What it tells us is that the numbers are a little bit larger than we thought," she said.
The economic recession is likely a factor, said Tami Tunnell, executive director of A Woman's Place domestic violence shelter.
A large majority of those responding had been homeless for less than a year. Of the 345 households surveyed, 130 reported having been homeless one to three times in the past three years.
The top reasons? Unemployment, inability to pay rent, mortgage or utility bills, family problems, personal illness, a bad credit history and substance abuse.
"I do think the economy played a part in it," Tunnell said. "I still think we missed some. There's just no way to capture everyone."
A small percentage – 51 households – reported some income from employment, up from 26 in the January count.
The survey was conducted at local shelters, soup kitchens, clinics and other agencies that serve the homeless. Because some people may not seek out help, it also included a street count, which found 27 homeless individuals living under viaducts, at local hotels or other public places.
For the last few years, the survey has included data collected by the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education, which tracks homeless children in county schools.
"They're really homeless, but they may be living in a car or with somebody, and we're not seeing them in the shelters," Kloeppel said.
It doesn't include people living with relatives indefinitely, but rather those who have moved in temporarily because of an eviction, job loss or domestic violence, she said.
"The continuum does believe there are lots more families and children out there who could use help than are showing up at shelters, or they're being told that the shelters are full," Kloeppel said. "We don't have that many beds for women and children together."
The Salvation Army has three houses on North Prospect Avenue for homeless families, and the Center for Women in Transition takes in women and children, but both are usually full, she said. So is Restoration Urban Ministries, which shelters families at a former hotel in Champaign.
Some families have to split up to find shelter, with men using the TIMES Center or Salvation Army Stepping Stone Shelter, she said. A tent community of homeless men also cropped up this summer outside the Catholic Worker House and later moved to St. Mary's Church in Champaign.
The continuum plans to use overflow shelters again this winter and is trying to creating more permanent accommodations for homeless families.
That will require more funding. The continuum applied for money from HUD in its annual grant last year to pay for four more beds at the Center for Women in Transition but was not successful. The center completed work last year on its Presby House, which can house four single homeless women, but has no funding to support it, said Executive Director John Sullivan. The plan is to try again this year.
"There are obviously people out there who need help," Kloeppel said.