Bus depots, railroad cars: 'home' for many urban poor in America

In worldly goods she has very little. Her income is $450 a month from governmental aid to the blind and social security. But Gertrude Moorehead is a woman of substantial faith.

''People in the low-income bracket - we're always doing without one thing or another,'' she says. ''But I consider myself blessed. I could find a lot of things to complain about, but I find myself thanking God for the things I do have.''

Stan Norton has even less - and is harder to locate. This reporter found him sleeping on the floor of an abandoned railroad passenger car just a few yards from a popular downtown night spot near the Mississippi River.

''I try to help people on the street,'' Mr. Norton said in his nighttime interview in the rubble of an unlighted railroad car. Yet without an address himself he is unable to receive any government assistance - no welfare, food stamps or medical assistance, for example.

He is one of what some say is a growing number of homeless in America, though there are no official figures to confirm the trend.

Clearly, poverty in the United States isn't concentrated in any particular part of the nation. You find it in a mountain hamlet in Kentucky, a steaming delta town in Mississippi, or on the streets of large cities like St. Louis. But whether rural or urban, poverty has increased in recent years, according to US Census Bureau figures. One in seven Americans is now officially defined as ''poor.''

The Rev. Larry Rice, executive director of the New Life Evangelistic Center Inc. here, guided this reporter on a tour of the spots many of St. Louis's urban poor can be found.

His church mission is especially interested in helping the city's homeless - alcoholics, drifters, former mental patients, and others who lack jobs and usually live out of cars, in tents, or in any other makeshift they come upon.

According to some experts, the numbers living this way are increasing, as the recession forces people to move from place to place looking for work. Mr. Rice calls it simply, ''the new depression.''

His own center welcomes up to 150 or so homeless, some of whom are allowed to stay at one of two farms the center runs.

As we walked through a run-down part of the city, we found several empty trailer trucks. It was evident people had been living there recently.

Later we met two women at a local bus station. One was apparently suffering from mental problems and only sporadically made sense. The other said she came from the east coast of Florida and had been on the streets for years. She was wearing an old coat and sweater and carrying a partially filled bag of aluminum cans, which she sells.

Two homeless men were seen sitting just off the sidewalk between two busy night spots. One of them, Jimmy Miller, said he had not eaten in two days. The Rev. Mr. Rice gave both men some sandwiches.

''It's not an easy life,'' said Mr. Miller. ''I'm miserable. I've seen a lot of people like myself, and there's getting to be more people every day,'' he said. He said he gets food out of the garbage, especially behind restaurants.

But his partner, Lowell Jaco, of Jacksonville, Fla., said it's ''fun'' to be out on the streets. He likes ''the excitement - not knowing from day to day what will happen,'' he said. Regular work bores him.

The Rev. Mr. Rice's center has also been distributing emergency food aid and providing wood furnaces to help the poor cut fuel bills. One person helped recently was Ophelia Mack, a blind woman. We talked with her in her third-floor housing-project apartment. She was ''totally out of food,'' she said, except for a last batch of beans and a piece of pork she had cooked up. Her refrigerator was completely empty.

The cost of moving to that apartment had eaten up what money she normally might have had from her monthly social security and supplemental security income payments, which total about $425 a month.

Mrs. Moorehead, also blind, used to work in an office for the blind. She currently lives with a daughter and a granddaughter, supported by $450 a month from the government.

She prays daily from her second-floor apartment. She prays for the world, for the President, and gives thanks to God for what she has.

''One day I was sitting up here with only $3 and a lady came and said the Lord sent her and gave me $20. If you find yourself loving and giving love, you'll find someone'll come along and love you the same way,'' she says, as we sit in her small living room.

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