The number of homeless families seeking help from Hennepin County is up dramatically over last year, alarming human services officials and forcing the county to use a downtown hotel as an overflow family shelter.

In the first six months of the year, 27 percent more homeless families came to the county for help than in the same period last year.

People who work with the homeless say the increase is driven by people losing their jobs, foreclosures on apartment buildings that displace renters and the effects of welfare reform that has recipients reaching the end of their 60-month lifetime limit on cash assistance.

"It's a perfect storm," said Cathy ten Broeke, the coordinator of a Minneapolis-Hennepin County program that has a goal of eliminating homelessness within a decade. "We're extremely challenged by this new economic reality, to say the least."

The county contracts for 115 shelter rooms for families at People Serving People in downtown Minneapolis and St. Anne's Place in north Minneapolis. Now it's using the Drake Hotel downtown as an overflow site.

St. Anne's Place normally houses 16 to 17 women and their children. The former convent has made room for three more families, including converting a former basement play room into living space, said program director Betsy LaMarre-Maddox.

"We're all doing this overflow thing now to try to house families in the shelters, as opposed to putting so many people in the Drake Hotel," LaMarre-Maddox said. "We're having families share rooms, doubling up."

One of the moms at St. Anne's is 36 and asked to be called by the assumed name Marie, because she is trying to escape domestic violence. For years she worked low-paying jobs and was able to keep a one-bedroom Minneapolis apartment for her and her two daughters. The girls got the bedroom; Marie slept on the couch. They ate a lot of bologna, she said, and a day when she could afford to buy hamburger was "a good day."

But her job as a janitor at Northwest Airlines was outsourced. She worked assembly lines and as an aide in kitchens and hospitals, then moved in with her fiancé. When things got abusive, she left. She's been at St. Anne's for more than a month and has applied for job after job, so far with no luck. Because she maxed out her welfare benefits in another state, she is not eligible for assistance here. Though she is licensed for work in a medical position, the license is not good in Minnesota, where she has lived since 2004.

"What can I do?" she asked. "The economy is bad.

"There's no affordable housing. ... I've been looking for a job for six months."

Stories like Marie's are common among homeless families, said Gail Anderson, a human services supervisor for the county. In today's tight economy, people without much education -- Marie has no college, just a high school equivalency degree -- who are working low-paying jobs can see their lives fall apart if they miss a rent payment because someone in the family is ill or because a car had to be repaired.

"The thing with poverty is that, even if people are working, one minor setback can send a whole family into a tailspin," Anderson said.

Hennepin County has vowed to end homelessness within a few years and was making significant progress until recently. Until the numbers ticked up this year -- 641 families sought help from the county in the first six months of this year, compared with 503 families in the same period last year -- the numbers of families seeking help had been dropping. In 2000, 1,817 families stayed in a shelter that contracted with the county. By 2006, that had dropped to 888. But last year, the number bumped up to 1,032. Families also are staying in shelters slightly longer.

"I believe this is directly linked to economic changes," Anderson said.

While foreclosure is having an effect, very few of the families that need shelter are homeowners who lost homes to foreclosure, county officials said. But when foreclosed apartments put poor people on the street and they begin looking for a new apartment, they may find themselves competing with people who once owned homes. Recent reports have put the apartment vacancy rate in Minneapolis at between 3 and 4 percent, with rents rising.

Hennepin County officials hope new procedures that helped push homeless rates down in the past few years work again. Working one-on-one, "rapid exit" counselors identify the biggest issue for families -- usually either finding work or finding an apartment -- and help them navigate red tape, find resources and even drive them to appointments with landlords or job interviews. Officials from the county and shelters also meet regularly to discuss what they're seeing and brainstorm about solutions.

"If we can get through this economic time, when we come out the other side I believe [the changes] will show great results," ten Broeke said. The biggest need, she said, is increased federal subsidies for housing.

For Marie and her daughters, home is now a room at St. Anne's. A Disney blanket hangs in the window as a curtain, and two twin beds that fill half the room are shoved together to make a bed for three. There's a battered dresser with a small TV on top, a scarred desk and two oil paintings on the wall created by Marie's daughters. Marie has been diligently looking for jobs and has a thick sheaf of newspapers and online printouts to prove it.

She calls the blue-walled room "my sanctuary, calm and away from everything." But she is very aware that even if she leaves the shelter in September, as she hopes, her situation is precarious.

"It's really scary to know that if anything happened to me, I would have nothing to fall back on," she said. "I can't afford to even get sick."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380