Homeless in America
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written by Jeanne
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They looked like my neighbors. His haircut was neatly trimmed; hers still had expensive blonde streaks highlighting a chic hairdo. Their clothes were clean not soiled or disheveled from nights on the street. But they held a cardboard sign that proclaimed “homeless, hungry please help.” The forty-something couple appeared newly homeless perhaps victims of the mortgage meltdown or foreclosure epidemic. I looked away quickly as the sight hit too close to home.

A 2008 study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 12 of the 23 cities surveyed turned people in need of shelter away due to a lack of capacity. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty 2004 study of homelessness in 50 cities found that the official estimated number of homeless people exceeds the number of emergency shelter spaces. And neither survey takes into account that there are few shelters in the rural areas. The Council for Affordable and Rural Housing estimates that approximately nine percent of the nation’s homeless are in rural areas. Some homeless never become a statistic as they live with relatives and friends or are on the streets and are never counted. 

I recently discovered a friend became homeless in the 1990s. She had lost her job as a caregiver. Both her family or friends could not take her in and she became homeless for two months. Perhaps she was more fortunate than most as she had a car and always managed to sleep at shelters. She recalled the constant search for food and money. Personal hygiene was a big problem but she found the YMCA allowed free daily showers. She never stood on street corners with homeless signs panhandling. The homeless network and share information on food banks or churches that serve meals to the indigent one day a week and shelters that may have space. 

A friend gave her money to stay overnight at a motel. A social worker gave her $5 and once filled up her gas tank with gas. A church couple allowed her to stay at their home one night. She never went through people’s garbage but remembered the men did. Finally she landed a job as an au pair through the help of the social worker. She never told her employer that she had been homeless fearful they would not hire her. 
“It was the most painful time of my life,” she remembered. “I think shame plays such a big part. I was so desperate. Miserable, miserable being on the street, and you get so hungry.”
“You meet all sorts of interesting mostly good people. I was terribly frightened it wouldn't end and thought maybe it would last indefinitely. I was so ashamed. Shame plays a big part. For a while there, I got down to my last 20 cents,” she added.
The 2008 U.S. Conference of Mayors, Hunger and Homelessness Survey reported an increase for first time food assistance and an increase in homelessness. On average 59% of food assistance requests were from families. On average cities reported a 12% increase in homelessness in 2008 attributed to high unemployment and lack of affordable housing. Twelve of the 25 cities reported the foreclosure epidemic caused more homelessness though data is sketchy as the economic downturn continues. With homes lost due to foreclosure and job layoffs with unemployment teetering at 10% tent cities have sprung up in Reno, Los Angeles, and California’s state capital 
Sacramento where over 200 squatters live next to the American River. They are America’s new homeless—the job that afforded the American dream of home ownership vanished.

Some say not since the Great Depression have there been homeless encampments. Not true—five years ago there was such a group living near a creek in an upper middle class neighborhood in San Jose. The police dismantled them after neighborhood complaints saying “they’ll just move some place else” and “it doesn’t address the problem of homelessness.” In urban areas, the sight of shopping carts filled with blankets and all the owner’s worldly possessions are a common occurrence. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress indicated that 754,000 persons are living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and on the streets on any given night. The Urban Institute indicates that this is not a true figure as it only counts the availability of beds of service providers. The actual numbers of homeless is more likely to be 2.5 to 3.5 million people with an estimated 39% children.

I haven’t seen the forty-something couple again. In their place, there is a young man and an older man in his 60s who appear to take turns panhandling at the busy intersection. The sign reads the same: “Hungry, homeless please help.”
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