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Helping the Homeless

A stubborn embarrassment about American society is extensive homelessness.  Every time I hear President Obama talk about our wealthy nation I cringe.  In this current terrible economic meltdown, with still rising levels of unemployment, homelessness has become horrific as millions lose their homes due to foreclosure or because they no longer can afford their rental units.

Traditional ways for dealing with the homeless by government and private entities have themselves become hamstrung by lower financial capabilities as local demand skyrockets.  A Google news search for homelessness confirmed that in virtually every part of the country homelessness is making headlines.

Good data on homeless are lacking.  Current national homeless figures were not yet available, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  In 2007, there were 671,888 homeless people.  Considering recent events it is very likely that there many more homeless now.  Also, that figure apparently excludes about 30 percent of homeless families housed in private, faith-based or domestic violence-related shelters  Indeed, the Urban Institute says about 3.5 million US residents (about 1 percent of the population), including 1.35 million children, have been homeless for a significant period of time.

A new report has brought attention to the fact that one in 50 US kids is homeless and will probably get worse.  "Without a voice, more than 1.5 million of our nation's children go to sleep without a home each year," said the "America's Young Outcasts" report by the National Center on Family Homelessness.  A wider definition of homelessness was used, consistent with one used by the federal Department of Education.  The report also noted that the child homelessness crisis is the worst since the Great Depression.  But this, says the report, was seen by looking at information for 2005 to 2006 – before the economic crisis hit us, which is truly amazing.

Here are some other findings about homeless children under the age of 18, not including runaways.  They are twice as likely to go hungry, more than twice as likely as middle class children to have health problems, and run twice the risk of other children of repeating a grade at school, being expelled or suspended, or not finishing high school.  "At least 25 percent have witnessed violence, and 22 percent have been separated from their families.  About half of all school-age children experiencing homelessness have problems with anxiety and depression, and 20 percent of homeless preschoolers have emotional problems that require professional care," the report said.

The report asked a question that each of us should also be asking: "What does it say about our country that we are willing to bail out banks but not our smallest most vulnerable citizens?"  Think about this, and try to recall whether you have heard any of the nation's leaders recently talk about homelessness in general or homeless children in particular.  When I found myself digging into this subject I kept thinking about the billions and billions of dollars just included for pork earmark projects from members of Congress in the new spending bill just signed by President Obama.  It was so easy for member of Congress to dismiss this outrageous spending as a very small percent of the total spending.  But we continue to spend billions on all kinds of things while paying too little attention to a number of human calamities, particularly the plight of homeless children.

Here is what has been reported in Jacksonville, Florida.  Increasing numbers of men, women and children are living on the streets for the first time.  They camp all across the city – tired, hungry and homeless.  Men who worked for decades in the construction history have lost jobs and all work prospects, and now find themselves and their families homeless.  Nancy Eisele, vice president of a local shelter said: "There are definitely people who never had the experience before, but maybe they were on the lower-income jobs, but could not make it work for themselves.  Now you got a lot of newer people in the economy that has never been through it.  It's getting to the point now where they don't know how to handle it, what to do or where to go.  We have about three hundred and twenty; they are full every night."  Her point was that until the shelters get more resources, 99 percent of Jacksonville's homeless will have no roof over their heads.

For those of us still comfortable in our homes it is very difficult to imagine the pain and suffering of going homeless.  Losing much of our net worth is one thing cutting back on spending can be painful, but losing our home is quite another.

Switch to rural Jefferson County, Pennsylvania where homeless shelter occupancy has doubled since the start of the financial crisis.  Church officials said they've seen a steady stream of people come to their shelters since September of last year.

Consider Minneapolis, Minnesota where homelessness is also making news.  Rising numbers of homeless are finding crowded conditions in the city's two largest shelters for single adults. "Right now we're looking at a shelter system that is full to capacity," said Dominick Bouza, operations director for the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center. 

Harbor Light usually houses between 425 and 450 people a night, but in the past few weeks, those numbers have risen to more than 500.  Homeless people have been allowed to sleep in the chapel inside Harbor Light.  But in the past few weeks, even the chapel has filled up.

Next door, at Catholic Charities' Secure Waiting, all 251 beds have been full for months.  The fear is that as the recession worsens existing shelters will be insufficient to house the newly homeless. "If 3M or Target lays off a few thousand workers and five hundred people show up at our doors all of a sudden, we won't be able to handle it," said Secure Waiting coordinator George Terrell.  Every night, four or five new people show up at Secure Waiting seeking shelter, many of them victims of job loss or foreclosures from their rental property. "It's different people," Terrell said. "We're getting the guys with the deer in the headlights look. They're totally lost."

Now consider what's happening in Utica, New York.  With the awful economy there has been a 30 percent spike in the number of homeless people in Oneida County during the past two years.  "That there are children and families living in the street, that really sends a shivering message to all of us that we need to do more," said County Executive Anthony Picente.  A new survey found that one-third of the homeless adults in the area said they had been working full- or part-time a year ago.  Between January 2007 and January 2009, the number of people unemployed in the Utica-Rome area shot up 55 percent.  Officials believe that this has caused most, if not all of the increase in homelessness.

In Massachusetts, a few weeks ago it was reported that there are 2,661 homeless families, up from 1,417 in January 2005, an increase of 88 percent.  In suburbs around  Boston's the rise in family homelessness has been even more dramatic, ballooning from 56 families in January 2005 to 156 today, an increase of 140 percent.

In the Dallas, Texas area, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district found the number of students classified as homeless has spiked 185 percent during the 2008-09 school year, in the Garland district numbers have jumped by 86 percent.

In Costa Mesa, California the news is about people living in motel rooms.  Because of the recession longtime workers who have lost their jobs are facing the terror and stigma of homelessness for the first time after years of owning or renting.  Though some end up in shelters and on the streets, others are living doubled up in apartments, in garages or in motels, uncounted in federal homeless data and often receiving little public aid.

So called motel families exist by the hundreds in Denver,Colorado, and in other cities from Chattanooga, Tennessee., to Portland, Oregon.  But they are especially prevalent in Orange County, California where rents are high and there is a shortage of public housing and a surplus of older motels.  "The motels have become the de facto low-income housing of Orange County," said Wally Gonzales, director of Project Dignity, a small charity.  Rental aid from federal and county programs reaches only a small fraction of needy families, said Bob Cerince, coordinator for homeless and motel residents services in Anaheim, who estimated the families at more than 1,000 in the county.

President Obama's stimulus package may give hope to more people and blunt the projected rise of families who could end up in motels and shelters, according to Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, DC.  The package allows $1.5 billion for homeless prevention, including help with rent and security deposits.  But is it enough?

The question I raise is this: Is it time for Americans to contribute whatever they can afford to groups providing assistance to the homeless, and even open their homes as well as their hearts?  Could thousands and thousands of Americans still having good, stable jobs and incomes, and living in large homes open their doors and provide temporary shelter to families with young children that through no fault of their own have lost their jobs and homes?  I think so.  I think there are huge numbers of McMansions where there are many empty bedrooms, as well as second homes that are not being used all the time.  Now is the time for Americans to come to the rescue of their fellow citizens.  We cannot depend on the government to totally address homelessness.

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Joel S. Hirschhorn has succeeded as: a full professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison; a senior staffer, U.S. Congress (Office of Technology Assessment); head of an environmental consulting company; Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources, National Governors Association; now an author and consultant. Recent books are: Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money, and Delusional Democracy - Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government. He has published hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines, journals and on many web magazine sites. He has given hundreds of talks at a wide range of conferences worldwide. He focuses on American culture, politics and government, and health issues.