Anoka County's homeless population has nearly doubled in the past year. And almost half of those currently homeless are children.

Of the county's 1,004 residents who did not have a permanent place to live as of the end of January, 385 were children living with families, according to county records made public Wednesday. Another 38 were kids 17 and younger who were not living with adults. And another 54 of the homeless were youths between 18 and 21, who were not living with adults.

That's a total of 477 homeless kids.

"We're very concerned about the teenagers who are homeless, without families," said Barb Wold, the county's housing coordinator. "Even the youngsters 18 to 21 are children because they're not by any means equipped to take care of themselves."

"All the numbers are significant," said County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah. "But the number of children without homes has really drawn our attention."

Last year, the total number of homeless listed in Anoka County was 609. Of those 240 were children -- considerably fewer than this year's numbers.

Even the number of chronically homeless people in Anoka County has risen. Those are, by federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition, individuals who have been "continuously homeless for a year or more and have at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years." In 2007, Anoka County had 41 chronically homeless people; last year, there were 69. Seventeen of those chronically homeless in 2008 were kids 17 and younger; another seven were between 18 and 21.

While more thorough reporting partially explains the increase in the number of homeless people counted, Wold and Sivarajah believe the dismal economy and resulting foreclosures have really taken their toll.

Last year, there were 2,343 foreclosures in Anoka County. In 2007, there were 1,671 and in 2006 only 843 -- or one-third of this year's total sheriff's sales.

A comparison of the number of home redemptions over the past three years is equally disturbing. Last year, there were 48 redemptions -- about half of the 93 in 2007, and less than one-third of the 166 in 2006.

Help on the way?

The response to the number of homeless people in the county has provided a silver lining to this expanding cloud.

"Last time, it was, 'Wow. I didn't know this is an issue,'" Sivarajah said. "But now, you hear people saying, 'I'm going to call my church and see how we can help.'

"For too long, people have ignored the problem, stereotyping the homeless," Sivarajah said. "Now, with all the foreclosures, people see it's their friends, neighbors and relatives who are losing their homes."

County and church officials met last week with a volunteer from Family Promise, a national nonprofit organization committed to helping low-income families achieve lasting independence, Sivarajah said. The volunteer, from New Jersey, met with representatives of 15 area churches.

The program's success rate of finding permanent housing is 70 to 80 percent, Sivarajah said. The program has been used in 39 states, she said.

A meeting to discuss the program's possibilities will be held at 7 p.m. March 10 at St. William's Church in Fridley, Sivarajah said.

"People in Anoka County are saying to themselves, 'If not for the grace of God, it could be me,'" she said. "Any of us could be in that situation."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419