Inside the waiting room of the Appletree Family Center at 15th and Cherry Streets, women and children, plus a few men, fill the seats. A young mother nurses a tiny baby. A little girl sleeps on a woman's lap. Fidgety toddlers color in notebooks.

They are waiting for the city to place them in shelters. All but a few will leave disappointed.

James Sanders, 49, has gone to the intake center with his wife and five children every day for the last four weeks - some mornings walking four miles just to get there.

After shuttling between the homes of two relatives, he and his family were temporarily placed in a hotel by the city Tuesday. "I'm struggling," said Sanders, who used to wash cars and needs to find permanent housing before he can start fixing the other broken pieces of his life.

Sonia Redden, 37, who lost her housekeeping job with a medical center last year, spent Monday night sleeping on the floor of a shelter with her daughters, 8 and 10.

She was told by workers at Appletree that unless she could find a friend or relative to stay with that night, they would have to call the Department of Human Services about her children.

"I'm down, but help me get up," said Redden, already fretting at 9 a.m. about where she would stay that night.

The city's ability to help families without homes is getting weaker.

"The city is very blatantly turning away folks," said Marsha Cohen, a lawyer for the Homeless Advocacy Project, which provides free legal help to individuals without homes. "It's never been like this."

Cohen said the city is telling people to find their own housing as a way to determine who truly needs emergency help and who still has friends or relatives to lean on.

All of the 1,544 beds for families at city-funded shelters are occupied. Dainette Mintz, the director of Philadelphia's Office of Supportive Housing, which funds shelters and places people, conceded that more families than usual are being denied immediate help.

She said for the year ended June 30, the city had to turn away 591 families at the Appletree Center - double the rate of two years ago. Of those families last year, 17 percent came back, claiming they had nowhere else to turn. Two years ago, about 10 percent returned.

Several factors are affecting the city's ability to assist the rising number of homeless families.

More than $2.3 million in state funding for shelters was eliminated this year, Mintz said. The city has picked up most of the shortfall, but it is only enough to maintain the number of beds for homeless families, not increase them.

Some federal money to help homeless families also has dried up. Under the economic-stimulus package of 2008, Philadelphia got $11.7 million to use for rapidly housing homeless families who show up at shelters by providing short-term help with rent. Of that, only $240,000 has not yet been committed.

Exacerbating the situation in Philadelphia, meanwhile, are the problems at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a critical partner in Mayor Nutter's plan to end homelessness. In 2008, Nutter and PHA Executive Director Carl R. Greene negotiated a two-pronged arrangement to help move people out of shelters and into permanent housing.

Greene agreed to annually set aside 200 federal rent-subsidy vouchers for homeless individuals and 300 units of public housing for families in shelters.

In the first two years, PHA lived up to its end of the bargain. But in the fiscal year just ended June 30, PHA only came through with 45 of the promised 300 homes.

Mintz said help from PHA was interrupted after Greene was fired last year. "Everything came to a halt," Mintz said. "It's clear that if we had been able to achieve the placement of a couple of hundred families out of our system, it would have created additional capacity for us in family shelters."

The agreement with the city was further set back by stronger internal demand at PHA for units.

In the last year, PHA has had to relocate public-housing tenants who were displaced by the demolition of the Norris Homes and Paschall Apartments, said Nichole Tillman, a PHA spokeswoman.

Tillman said PHA was operating at 98 percent occupancy - "a historically high rate" - and has 100,000 families on its waiting list for either housing or federal rent subsidies.

"Despite these current challenges, PHA remains committed to working with the city to house individuals and families . . . even if the fulfillment takes longer than originally expected," she said.

Cohen, the lawyer working with homeless families, said the city could not rely on PHA as a "back door" to housing. "The city has to come up with a different solution," she said.

Cohen said the city had a legal obligation to help homeless families. A 1983 ordinance signed by Mayor W. Wilson Goode promises emergency care for the poor and indigent during a time of crisis.

She said the Homeless Advocacy Project is weighing whether to press its case in court: "We're in a crisis."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659, jlin@phillynews.com, or @j_linq on Twitter.