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Americans with no place to put down roots

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1986

New York

IS homelessness in the United States on its way to becoming an accepted institution? Across the nation, new shelters are opening, concerned citizens are meeting, and debates rage over who the homeless are and how they arrived at their present condition.

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Talk to the warmly dressed grandmother sitting on 42nd Street in New York asking for money for lunch. ``I'm staying in a church,'' she says, when asked if she has a roof over her head. ``But we have to leave during the day.''

Listen to Willie Wimbrey in Los Angeles, a young veteran with training in data processing, who says he'd like to find a job ``and get away from downtown.''

``I had only heard about homelessness,'' he says, after a morning spent working on a clean-up crew in skid row. ``I'd never been homeless before.''

One often-stated axiom is that the poor and homeless have always been with us. But the reason behind the rapid proliferation of shelters, conferences, and debates is that this population is different. To the millions who were hungry and homeless during the Great Depression, economic hardship crossed social lines. The whole nation suffered -- and the government helped to pull the nation out.

Today's homeless are a minority amid a prosperous majority. Although some of the homeless have dropped from middle-income status, most are chronically poor. There is, as one researcher puts it, an almost impaired ability to keep a job and a home. Never have there been so many mentally-ill people on the streets.

One can point to a host of ills contributing to homelessness -- racism, the breakup of the family, the impoverishment of women, the destruction or conversion of low-rent housing in inner-city neighborhoods, and the increasing toll of drug and alcohol abuse.

No one can say just how many homeless people there are in the US. Estimates vary wildly. A study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development says there are between 250,000 and 300,000 people living in the street or in shelters. Advocates for the homeless put the number at up to 2 million.

One thing everyone agrees on is that there is not enough shelter, either long term or temporary, for the homeless. And many worry that what is being provided -- barrack-like shelters, month-long temporary housing, meals at soup kitchens -- is merely a band-aid.

``There are five or six basic root causes of homelessness,'' says Rodger Farr, a psychiatrist with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. He ticks off lack of services for the mentally ill, alcoholism and drug abuse, physical problems, family breakup, economic upheaval, and employment problems.

``The generic image [of the homeless] has been that of a 55-year-old, white alcoholic who cruised round the missions,'' says Gary L. Blasi, an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who has fought for the rights of the homeless.

That stereotype can still be found in skid-row areas throughout the country. But a large number of the homeless are mentally-ill individuals. They are often the most visible homeless -- a shopping bag lady with layers of clothes, the talkative man of a street corner in a tattered jacket, a young man who believes he is being watched by intelligence agencies.

Some of the homeless are, of course, alcoholics and drug abusers.

Many of the homeless have no discernible handicaps, and many are quite young. Vietnam veterans are on the streets in high numbers. And there is an increasing population of children who, with a parent or parents, are living in shelters, welfare hotels, and even cars.

Some of the homeless are victims of recent disruptions -- lost jobs, broken marriages -- and are able to find stability again with some help. Others have drifted in and out of homelessness for several years.

Some of the homeless have migrated to larger cities looking for work or a new life. Edward Contreras left Dallas ``to get away and think,'' with the idea that it would be easy to get a job in Los Angeles.

``It backfired,'' says the affable young man, who works in the kitchen of the shelter he is staying in. He has spent a few nights on the street in the skid-row area. ``It's cold at night, and it's hard to sleep because you think someone will sneak up and stab you,'' says Eddie, speaking of the violence in the area.

``The common characteristic [of the homeless] is disaffiliation,'' says Andy Raubeson, executive director of the Single Room Occupancy Housing Corporation (SRO Housing) in Los Angeles. Whether it is alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, family breakup, or economic circumstances, these are people who do not have normal ties to family or community.