Ava dresses professionally and carries a luxury-brand handbag. Each morning, she drops her 5-year-old daughter off at school, then drives to her hospital job.
Before work, when she occasionally stops to get gas or coffee, she often gets asked for handouts from people who say they are homeless.
She has to turn them down. She can't afford to help, because Ava is homeless too.
Her car is a loaner from a friend. The clothes and handbag are remnants from Ava's previous life, when she could afford them. She's not paid for working at her administrative job at the hospital -- instead, she's required to be there by the Nassau County Department of Social Services as a condition of receiving aid. And, at night, Ava and her daughter sleep in a homeless shelter in Roosevelt.
Social services providers say stories like Ava's aren't unique: Nearly 2,500 individuals, including 590 families, lived in Long Island homeless shelters as 2012 began.
And the faces of the homeless are changing as more and more working people like Ava, younger people who have less experience and seniority in the job market, and veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are living in shelters, experts and officials said.
While the chronically homeless -- those who have been in the county system for more than a year -- remain, "they are now outnumbered by those who are new to the system and new to the experience," said Gregory Blass, Suffolk County's social services commissioner.
Blass' Nassau County counterpart, John Imhof, said his department is focusing on getting homeless families into permanent housing to avoid an increase in the shelter population.
'It just breaks my heart'
"Ava" is a pseudonym, since most of her friends and co-workers have no idea she's homeless, and she's worried about what might happen if they find out.
Ava, 43, blames her ex-husband for taking everything from her, leaving her and her daughter penniless and homeless. She lost her apartment in October 2010 and began sleeping on friends' couches.
Her family is deceased, and while her close friends help when they can -- inviting her and her daughter to dinner, or buying the child a pair of sandals -- Ava is hesitant to become a burden to them.
"I'm blessed to have a good support system, but they have their own lives," she said. "They help as much as they can."
Ava now lives at Bethany House, a homelike shelter for women and children that is nothing like the nightmarish scenes of homeless shelters Ava had seen in movies. The first day she arrived, Ava said, she was so terrified that a friend had to physically push her through the shelter's door.
"I knew nothing about any of this," Ava said. "I didn't know homelessness existed the way it does in Nassau County."
While Ava tries to shield her daughter, she knows the 5-year-old feels the stress of their situation.
"She said to me the other day, 'I wish I didn't have to go to school. I wish I was going to work to make $100. We could get a big house with a garage!' " Ava said. "You know what that does to me? I don't want to cry, but it just breaks my heart."
More workers checking in
Tracey Lutz, executive director of Maureen's Haven in Riverhead, which provides shelter during the winter for the homeless in churches and synagogues, and a daytime drop-in center year-round, said she's seen a spike in the number of working people who are using her agency.
"We have several who actually have their own vehicles and do have work," Lutz said, and listed them: A stock clerk at Rite Aid. A home health care worker. A music teacher who taught piano when the economy allowed more families to opt for such luxuries, but now sleeps in his car.
"You have a growing population whom you would never expect would be in a situation of homelessness -- namely those with skills and experience in the workforce," Blass said. "And this is on the increase."
Blass said nearly 60 percent of the people who come to his department these days have never asked for government help before.
Blass said Suffolk is also seeing more younger families in crisis, and not just because there are more young families in Suffolk. "A younger population is newer to the job market, has less seniority and experience in the job market, and is more expendable to employers," he said.
"I think there's a perception that people who experience homelessness are somehow outside of mainstream society, and that's not true," said Jo Anne Collins, director of housing and homeless services for the Family Service League in Huntington. "The whole concept that homelessness is an aberration, that as long as you're working hard you won't be homeless, is not real."
In Suffolk, the number of homeless men, women and children has grown over the past five years, settling at 1,570 individuals, including 427 families, last month. Nassau's numbers have begun dropping after an increase over the past few years: 498 homeless individuals, including 101 families, in January, the latest numbers available.
Imhof said while few homeless families seeking help in Nassau County are working, more families there are seeking food and rent assistance, programs that help to stave off homelessness.
"The changes we've seen in increased applications have been really for food stamps, HEAP [Home Energy Assistance Program], temporary assistance -- people who have not reached the level of becoming homeless, but are becoming food-deprived," he said.
Imhof added that Nassau's homeless population "really does represent pretty much a cross-section of the county."
A homeless restabilization project that Nassau began last year, aimed at families with the most likelihood of staying in permanent housing, has reduced some of the pressure on that county's social-service system, Imhof said.
"Our goal is to empty out every shelter and motel of any homeless family in Nassau County," he said.
Blass said Suffolk moves 30 to 40 homeless families per month out of the county's 53 shelters, and the 16 motels it uses to handle the overflow, into permanent housing programs.
"If it weren't for that transitioning, our housing program would sink like a stone," Blass said. "It would never be able to keep up with the volume."
A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that while the overall number of homeless people nationwide declined by 3.3 percent between 2007 and 2010, the number of homeless people in families nationally increased by 20 percent, and the number of people using shelters in suburban and rural areas increased by 57 percent.
Both Blass and Imhof said veterans are among the newest changes in the homeless population -- especially returning veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who find themselves injured and out of work.
There are an estimated 700 homeless veterans on Long Island -- and that number is expected to grow, especially as the military begins its scheduled pullout from Afghanistan and the economy remains sluggish, said John A. Sperandeo, chief of social work service at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
"We are starting to see increasing numbers of veterans who are facing either becoming homeless or on the verge of homelessness as a result of the downturn in the economy," Sperandeo said. "Newer veterans . . . are more caught up with that."
Twenty years ago, the Northport VA had just a couple of workers dedicated to the needs of homeless veterans; today, there are 18.
Greta Guarton, executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said repeated tours of duty often mean veterans get jobs but lose them, or suffer from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, leaving them in pain, at odds with their families and unable to work.
"You have a lot of folks who are continuously losing their jobs when they come back here," Guarton said. "Or they are unable to get a job when they come back."
The problem has gotten so acute that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has teamed up with the VA to offer housing vouchers to homeless vets along with supportive services that aim to keep the vets stable and housed.
'Trying to make it'
Gustina Penna, 33, was a heavy-equipment operator in the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. When she returned stateside and moved in with her mother, she began enduring horrific nightmares and flashbacks -- symptoms of the PTSD she didn't realize she had.
Penna said she and her mother fought, and Penna began using alcohol and drugs to dull her pain. She soon became homeless, drifting from couch to couch before finally sleeping in her car.
"Going from the front lines of a war to a welfare line," as Penna described it.
It was exactly the opposite of what she thought her life would be like after the military.
"I didn't envision myself to self-medicate to the point where I was incoherent and did not want to feel or live anymore," she said.
Penna now lives in a shelter run by the United Veterans Beacon House with her two young sons, and hopes to move into permanent housing this year.
"I do my damnedest for these kids not to feel the situation we're in," Penna said. "When it's the end of the month and I'm tight on cash, I'll eat oatmeal, but my kids will eat whatever they want."
She's gotten treatment and therapy from the VA and is sober. She's back in school, training to become a medical assistant so she can better provide for her children. And she's hopeful -- realistic, but hopeful.
"The bottom line is this: Even being clean and sober, I still make poor decisions. I still have crappy luck. I'm still not the greatest [at] trying to budget myself. I stink at that," Penna said frankly. "But I'm making it. I'm trying to make it."
Long Island's homeless
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,240
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 370
Homeless families-Suffolk: 288
Homeless families-Nassau: 109
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,222
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 479
Homeless families-Suffolk: 308
Homeless families-Nassau: 128
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 995
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 397
Homeless families-Suffolk: 245
Homeless families-Nassau: 116
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,020
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 433
Homeless families-Suffolk: 269
Homeless families-Nassau: 118
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 926
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 276
Homeless families-Suffolk: 243
Homeless families-Nassau: 72
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,096
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 380
Homeless families-Suffolk: 274
Homeless families-Nassau: 97
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,003
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 423
Homeless families-Suffolk: 256
Homeless families-Nassau: 114
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,117
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 509
Homeless families-Suffolk: 280
Homeless families-Nassau: 134
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,123
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 505
Homeless families-Suffolk: 275
Homeless families-Nassau: 104
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,395
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 515
Homeless families-Suffolk: 347
Homeless families-Nassau: 118
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,243
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 744
Homeless families-Suffolk: 317
Homeless families-Nassau: 165
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,682
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 805
Homeless families-Suffolk: 407
Homeless families-Nassau: 172
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,441
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 662
Homeless families-Suffolk: 363
Homeless families-Nassau: 133
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,984
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 547
Homeless families-Suffolk: 502
Homeless families-Nassau: 111
Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,998
Homeless individuals-Nassau: 498
Homeless families-Suffolk: 488
Homeless families-Nassau: 101