Friday, December 11, 2009

The Changing Face of Homelessness

The US Conference of Mayors has released their 2009 survey on Hunger and Homelessness. The report is based on a survey of 27 mayors from around the country who are members of the Conference of Mayors task force on Homelessness and Hunger.

The study shows about a 26% increase in requests for emergency food assistance. The numbers of homeless families have also risen sharply:

76 % of the cities reported an increase in family homelessness, while homelessness among individuals decreased or stayed the same for 16 of the 23 cities. The report notes that most of the cities that experienced drops in individual homelessness attributed the decline to a policy strategy by federal, state and local governments of adopting 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness among single adults. The recession and a lack of affordable housing were cited as the top causes of family homelessness in the surveyed cities.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan
who chairs the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said that one of the most tragic consequences of our housing and economic crisis are those who fall into homelessness as a result – whether through foreclosures, evictions, layoffs, or other financial problems. The Secretary noted that with increases in rural and suburban family homelessness, the issue is not an urban problem, but one every community struggles with. He said, “As diverse as our homeless population is, there is one thing that everyone who is homeless shares: a lack of housing they can afford. And as this study finds, high housing costs often lead families to cut back on necessities like food.”

Homeless shelters all over the country are full, and in some cases, turning people away. The Denver Post ran a story earlier in the week that showed an absence of beds for homeless women in Denver:

On Monday night, when the temperature dropped to 5 degrees in metro Denver, as many as 35 solo homeless women were turned away from city shelters.
Although the number of unaccompanied homeless women in the metro area has tripled since 2007 — to 1,606 from 552, according to the 2009 Metro Denver Homeless Initiative's point-in-time survey — there are only 241 shelter beds for solo women available in Denver.
Emergency-shelter beds "are extremely limited for women," said Geoff Bennett, director of the Samaritan House. "There are many more men's beds than there are beds for women."
When the beds fill up, some of the women may receive motel vouchers, but they must meet certain criteria. And if they don't,
they must fend for themselves.

The lack of shelter beds for women seems to be a problem of stereotyping. For decades, the single, alcoholic male has been the image of homelessness. As a result, in some places the stereotype continued to dominate, while the homeless population changed:
Leslie Foster, director of The Gathering Place, believes part of the problem is systemic.
"In the mid to late '80s, when a lot of services were started for men, homeless women were only 10 percent of that population," she said. "Now, women are 42 percent of the homeless population, and 27 percent of (the homeless population) are children under 18. That's nearly half the homeless population, and the services have not kept up."

It's everywhere. Homeless shelters are full in Fargo. In New York City the Legal Aid Society is taking the city to court for violating a 1981 agreement wherein the city agrees to provide clean and safe shelter for men and women who seek it:

New York City shelters are so full that homeless men and women have been left to sleep on benches, floors and dining room tables over the last three months, violating a landmark 1981 agreement, Legal Aid lawyers charged in court papers on Wednesday.
The motion by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless also alleges that homeless women have been transported on buses after midnight to a shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, where they have been allowed to sleep for less than five hours before being required to leave again in the morning

Bottom line - there just aren't enough shelter beds to fill the increasing demands. New York City also has an increasing number of homeless veterans to contend with.

There are nearly 10,000 homeless veterans in New York City, on Long Island and in northern New Jersey, according to estimates in a new report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which also found that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are falling into homelessness earlier than those who served in Vietnam.

This isn't just an urban problem. The suburbs are also seeing a sharp increase in homelessness, and as this story in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates, adding additional capacity is a real struggle in the suburbs:

PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) uses rotating faith-based sites and an army of volunteers to provide nightly refuge. Most operate from October to April. Although churches consider it part of their mission to tend to the needy, housing the homeless can evoke concern among neighbors and parishioners.

Last year for example, a plan to open a PADS shelter in Park Ridge was abandoned after residents objected to the use of two church sites. Getting enough volunteers for a new shelter also can be difficult. "For every site, there's four to six support congregations," said Carol Simler, executive director of DuPage PADS. "We work with over 4,000 volunteers and more than 130 congregations to provide this interim housing."

PADS sites are constantly recruiting volunteers just to maintain the current level of service. Responding quickly to increased demand is beyond their means

This is particularly alarming:
But surveys don't capture the grim truth on the streets and at shelters -- emergency beds are scarce. From Chicago Heights to Waukegan, demand has outstripped supply, with shelters resorting to lotteries and free bus passes out of town to handle the overflow.

Just ship those pesky homeless people out of town - and make them someone else's problem.

There is a lack of affordable housing and rental property across the country. We've been focused on building single family homes and McMansions for the last decade. As a result, during a severe recession, the face of homelessness in the US has changed. Today's homeless are likely to be working families.

cross posted at Main St - a project of Working America

1 comment:

DissedBelief said...

This is terrifying. When "change we can believe in" came to power, I was hoping that homelessness, like health "care" would be addressed. But pouring more money into a country that is a bottomless pit (Afghanistan),is pulling financial resources away from our very streets. Change I no longer believe in is not addressing home grown issues such as homelessness due to lack of affordable housing, homelessness due to lack of affordable health care and homelessness due to lack of jobs that pay more than minimum wage.

Things really are going from bad to worse. I understand we inherited this nightmare from a dumber than a plank President
but exactly why has Obama done a complete turn around on all his promises of change?