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Harold Mitchell, 64, soaks up some morning sun on Gilman Street near San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley on Wednesday Nov. 13, 2013. Mitchell said he has been homeless for as long as he can remember. He could not say whether he has a severe mental illness or a substance abuse problem, but he would like to get an apartment some day soon. (Doug Oakley/Bay Area News Group)

BERKELEY -- The number of homeless people in Alameda County with severe mental illness jumped by 35 percent in just two years, according to a census taken earlier this year by a consortium of local agencies called EveryOne Home.

The overall number of homeless people in the county was slightly higher since the¿ last count two years ago, up 86 at 4,264, according to the report released Tuesday night. It did not break out individual cities within Alameda County.

When the count was taken during the spring, 1,106 homeless identified themselves as having a severe mental illness, up from 818 in 2011, the report said.

About 60 percent of those people are sleeping on the sidewalks, in parks or wherever they can find a spot, but not inside shelters, the report said.

And in the past 10 years, the number of homeless with severe mental illness has doubled.

The increase has experts trying out a number of theories to explain it.

Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home, said the number probably shot up because there is not enough money for permanent, supportive housing for those with mental health issues. She said money from the Mental Health Services Act -- or Proposition 63, which passed in 2004 and placed a 1 percent tax on individual income of more than $1 million -- got a lot of mentally ill homeless into housing in 2006 and 2007, but that money is all being used to sustain those people and there's not much left for those who need help now.

"At that time we added hundreds of units of permanent housing for the mentally ill," de Coligny said. "The people who got it are using it and we haven't added more subsidies. Permanent housing is not as expensive as multiple trips to the hospital or jail, and its certainly more humane than leaving severely mentally ill people on the streets. But it costs money."

Michael Nelson, a program manager for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, which runs shelters in Berkeley, Oakland and Hayward, said he sees two possible causes for the run up in numbers, including better awareness of mental health issues by those who answered questions for the survey and homelessness itself.

"You take someone who is 'normal' and you put them in a situation where they are living with their kids in a car and they start to exhibit symptoms," Nelson said. "Living on the street is enough to make anyone start to exhibit symptoms. And maybe we're just recognizing it a lot more."

Iverson Eicken, a psychologist and clinical director of BOSS, said the good news for people with mental illness is that the medications are so much better than they were 15 years ago. The bad news is when they go off their meds, they hit bottom really hard.

"People who use these medications can cope until something goes wrong in their life," Eicken said. "That's when they tend to fall off the medications and although the meds are much better now, the whammy people take when they go off them is much bigger."

And that often includes becoming homeless.

Other trends highlighted in the survey include:

  • The number of homeless has dropped by about 16 percent over the past 10 years while the population of Alameda County grew 6 percent in the same period.

  • About a third of the homeless in the county have a chronic substance abuse problem.

  • There were 753 homeless children under age 17 in Alameda County.

  • About 55 percent of county homeless live outside and 45 percent sleep in shelters.

  • The number of chronically homeless single adults decreased 17 percent in the past two years and that group accounts for about 22 percent of the total homeless count in the county.

  • Homeless families with children make up 32 percent of the overall population, down from 56 percent in 2003.

    Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.