Prince William County last week received permission from the federal government to use nine surplus Army residences in Woodbridge to house homeless families.

The county will pay no rent, or a nominal fee, and will have use of the seven-acre property on Dawson Beach Road for at least a year, said Gerald Bresee, real estate specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, which handles the disposition of Army property. Prince William officials said they hope to extend the lease for up to five years.

Prince William is the first Virginia jurisdiction to use the McKinney Act, which encourages federal agencies to lend little-used property for use as homeless shelters.

Homelessness is a growing problem for Prince William.

A task force estimated last year that more than 200 people in the county were without permanent shelter. That figure probably is too low, officials said, because the area's economy has worsened since the count was made.

The duplex and row of town houses, formerly used by the Army to house soldiers stationed at Fort Belvoir and several other bases in the Washington area, will be used to house up to 14 families for three months to a year, said Ricardo Perez, Prince William director of social services. The units probably won't be ready for at least three months, said Deputy County Executive Lawrence Hughes.

The units will supplement the county's new emergency shelter, which is scheduled to open in late July.

Clients can stay in that facility for up to a month, while the Woodbridge units will be geared toward those who need more assistance.

"If we just shuttle people back out right away, they can make it for a few months, and then they're back in crisis again," Perez said.

"You may have a family where the father is {learning} to be an electrician . . . . They might stay {in the new facility} for three or four months," said Woodbridge Supervisor Hilda M. Barg.

The Woodbridge site also will house counseling offices and a homelessness prevention center. The county recently received a $206,000 state grant for a program that provides financial assistance to people on the brink of losing their homes.

The Woodbridge buildings were constructed in the 1950s and the units were renovated three years ago.

The county may try to purchase the property and build an additional homeless shelter on it, Barg said. "It's one of several sites" under consideration, she said.

The Army is trying to sell the property at market value because Congress voted in 1988 to include the site, which is adjacent to the Army's Harry Diamond Laboratories but considered a separate unit, on a list of bases that should be closed.