WASHINGTON — JANICE GRADY lost her job as a nurse in Washington, D.C., in March 1990.
Within a month, the nurse, whose way of life had been completely normal up to then, was on the street. "I had no idea how I got there. I was running around the streets in dirty clothes and asking myself: 'Is this really me?' "
For the first two months, she lived in a broken-down car just two blocks away from the White House, at a site where many homeless people hang out. Then there was trouble with the police and from then on she had to find a new place to sleep every night.
Ms. Grady had no idea at the start about where to find emergency accommodation or soup kitchens. Like most people who suddenly lose their homes, she was completely unprepared for homelessness.
"Mostly I didn't eat, or found something in garbage cans," she says. "It wasn't till November that I went to the Women's Emergency Shelter for the first time."
Grady had become one of the 3 million Americans estimated by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) to have no proper roof over their heads.
The number of these women keeps rising. Rising rents, growing unemployment, and the current US recession mean that more and more Americans are being plunged into poverty. The safety net of social welfare assistance is inadequate and fails to catch them.
President Reagan's and President Bush's conservative policies have trimmed back the welfare system. Funding for subsidized housing has been dramatically reduced. The right to welfare has been limited and shelters have been closed down.
In the 25 largest urban centers, a worker has to earn double $4.65 per hour minimum wage to be able to pay the basic rent.
Homeless people have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than the average American. The NCH estimates the number of homeless women in the United States has risen in recent years to 600,000.
Women on the street live with special dangers. Says Grady: "On the street, it's like hell, a jungle.
"If you're a women and on the street, you've got to forget you have feelings. You can't show anyone a weakness. Homeless women have no one protecting them. They get raped and beaten up and persecuted.
Most of the shelters do not allow children to stay, so the mothers have no choice but to offer their children for adoption or put them in orphanages. Many mothers avoid the shelters for this reason as long as possible.
Grady says she had thought of suicide. But she found a job with the NCH and then found a place to live again. Today she works for the people who used to be her fellow-homeless.