In your town, kids slept out in the cold last night. They may have been in the back of a car, under a bridge or in a crawl space between two buildings. They may have been young people aged out of the foster care system, runaway teenagers or small children with a single mom.

What they all had in common was this: After a series of relentless storms, they were cold, wet and hungry, and they had nowhere to go.

When I wrote last Christmas about homeless youngsters, there was hope that an improving economy might begin to reduce the number of young people at risk.

But workers on the front lines say the number of kids living on the street is getting bigger, not smaller. The most recent one-day survey counted 701 unaccompanied homeless youngsters in Sonoma County, plus 190 homeless families with children under 18.

The actual numbers are higher. There is simply no way for aid workers and volunteers to track all the young people being bounced from place to place, or all the young people who may be homeless at some time during the year.

At every agency that exists to help people in trouble, the story is the same: Hard times continue to grind away at job seekers and the people who rely on them for shelter and food.

Santa Rosa-based Catholic Charities is experiencing "unprecedented" demand at its shelters, shelter manager Jennielynn Holmes told Staff Writer Guy Kovner.

And with winter coming on, she added, "it's only going to get worse."

Young workers are among the hardest hit. "It's difficult for youth with no job experience to compete with older people who have years of experience," said Francis Welsh, a facility monitor at Tamayo House and co-chair of the Sonoma County Homeless Youth Task Force.

Tamayo House, operated by Social Advocates for Youth, provides housing and transitional services for 18-to-24 year olds, including many who aged out of foster care.

As happens in tough times, there is a waiting list. (With community support, SAY hopes to grow its capacity by transforming the former Warrack Hospital into a one-stop shop for youth services.)

Of course, many older and more experienced workers also struggle to find jobs. One in six local residents now relies on services from the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Executive Director David Goodman told Kovner.

Economic hard times, noted Lisa Fatu, a street outreach coordinator for SAY, also contribute to other causes of homelessness, including alcohol and drug addition, family violence and depression.

As we make plans for holiday celebrations, we are left to think about children living in the cold because there's not enough shelter space to help them all.

SAY outreach workers sometimes provide tents and sleeping bags to homeless young people because, Fatu said, "it's better than nothing." Which means it's better than living under a makeshift shelter cobbled together from cardboard and tree limbs.

Helping in this way, she said, "feels good and feels sad at the same time."

At Christmastime or any time, it's not acceptable that hundreds of kids are on the street. Children without a safe place to stay are more likely to be sick or injured, and more likely to be victims of a crime. They are more likely to fail in school, more likely to suffer depression and less likely to have friends.

The stabbing death last month of a 24-year-old homeless woman, Michela Anne Wooldridge, testifies to the risks young people face on the streets.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution, especially when government is playing a smaller role.

With the loss of state redevelopment funds, COTS, or the Committee on the Shelterless, in Petaluma is turning its playbook upside down, Staff Writer Lori A. Carter reported. In the future, two-thirds of the organization's financial support will come from private donors.

One day at a time, solutions will begin with the hard work of reaching out to these youngsters and providing them the physical and emotional support they need.

Welch, who works with young people who have aged out of the foster care system, remembers becoming homeless after he aged out of foster care. It was tough, scrambling day-to-day for food and a safe place to sleep.

"The thought that kept me going," he told me, "was that eventually it was going to get better."

So how can we make it better?

We can write a check to our community service agency of choice. We can volunteer our time. Better yet, we can do both.

At Christmastime, it seems the least that we can do.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>