Far more Suffolk families are homeless this holiday season compared with last year, an influx that social services officials said Monday is straining the safety net as the economy continues to sputter and state budget cuts loom.
Nearly 1,500 people were counted as homeless in October by the Suffolk Department of Social Services, a 30 percent increase compared with October 2008, a surge driven by a sharp jump in families seeking help after having lost jobs or homes to foreclosure, officials said.
Children accounted for more than half of Suffolk's homeless.
The county's network of 18 shelters is overwhelmed, and caseworkers are now placing homeless families in motels again, a practice they had all but abandoned several years ago.
"We have exhausted our shelter capacity," said Gregory Blass, Suffolk's social services commissioner, adding the county was looking into federal grants to open more shelters.
"We have got to increase shelter capacity," he said. "Motels are not ideal."
By contrast, Nassau's shelter system saw a slight drop in residents from October 2008 compared with last month. Nassau officials attributed the decrease to a $6.5-million federal homeless prevention grant that pays to keep residents in their current homes. Suffolk received a similar grant, but it totals only $1.5 million.
Among the newly homeless are Michelle Tingle, 35, and her son, Zuriel Mason, 9, who began staying in a Deer Park homeless shelter in February after Tingle lost her job at a staffing agency.
Although she now works part-time at the Central Islip library, her wages don't allow her to save enough for first month's rent, security deposit and a possible broker's fee on a new apartment.
"I can't even afford to pay bus fare right now," she said Monday.
Tingle showed up Monday at Tequila Jack's restaurant in Port Jefferson, where the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association dished out a pre-Thanksgiving meal to anyone who stopped in, many from homeless shelters. PBA vice president Noel DiGerolamo said officers have noticed more homeless on the streets.
Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, said her group counted 207 people living on the streets and in the woods of Suffolk in January, the most they had ever tallied.
But Guarton said a different group is now entering homeless shelters: the unemployed with empty savings accounts.
"We are seeing people who were formerly in a higher income bracket," Guarton said. "They haven't been able to find work, and while they did have some savings, they've gone through it."
On the East End, the Maureen's Haven Homeless Outreach Project - a nonprofit that provides shelter with mostly private money - has housed about 31 people a night, up from 25 per night last November.
In addition to the day laborers the group has traditionally served, Maureen's Haven workers are now helping people with college degrees, said director Denis Yuen.
As Suffolk's homeless population surges, Gov. David A. Paterson has proposed cutting $28 million from social service programs, including about $876,000 from homelessness prevention programs. Paterson said the cuts are necessary to close a gaping budget gap. Long Island officials said Monday that the cuts couldn't come at a worse time.