Americans with no place to put down roots

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.

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.

Unfortunately homelessness has become a political issue. Conservatives argue that extensive urban renewal and rent control championed by liberals have destroyed low-income housing, the traditional source of homes for the elderly, the mentally ill, and poor single people. Liberals say that cuts in social spending mandated by the Reagan administration are responsible for the increased homelessness.

Advocates for the homeless also note an increase in the temporarily homeless, people whose welfare grants do not stretch the entire month. They hit the streets the last part of the month.

Some of the homeless are down-and-outers who are angry and frustrated both at themselves and their plight. Gilland, a handsome American Indian wearing cowboy boots and silver jewelry, says the country is having tremendous economic problems.

``There's not anyone in this room who wouldn't do a day's work,'' he says at a skid-row shelter in Los Angeles. Later on, he talks about the agony of his alcoholism and the shame he feels about it. Yet, he admits, he is not sure he won't go straight out and buy a bottle of wine when he leaves this ``transition'' shelter.

``What we are getting are hundreds of thousands of an entirely new population,'' says Dr. Farr. ``During the Great Depression, the homeless had no way of earning a living. Now unemployment is under 7 percent, and the economy is doing well. But we have as many homeless now as we did in 1980 [when the last recession began]. Whatever is happening to the economic cycles is not [reducing the number of] the homeless.''

``Homeless families have multiple problems,'' says Martha Dilts, of the Seattle emergency-housing service. ``They don't come here unless they have bottomed out.''

Two shelters in Seattle, one for single adults and one for women and families, show the broad slice of life that the homeless encompass. In the old Morrison Hotel, in a room that was once a private men's club, over 100 men and women mill about, sleeping, playing cards, drinking coffee as they wait for mattresses and blankets to be handed out at 5:30 p.m. Currently the shelter takes in around 200 people a night.

A young white fisherman, unemployed after a bad season, stretches out against a wooden pillar and reads a book. An older black man, originally from Kentucky, sits at a table and says he works at Alcoholics Anonymous, and that he is trying to get social security. A tall black man says he is staying here until he can move into nearby housing for the elderly and disabled. He says he has two jobs in the balance, and he wants to get an engineering degree. But one can't help but wonder how realistic his hopes are.

What is his disability?

``That's too personal,'' he says, straightening up.

Ken Cole, director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, worries that shelters like this will become the low-income housing of the future.

``By design these are bottom-of-the-barrel accommodations,'' he says.

At Seattle's Sacred Heart shelter, some five families and six single women find clean and comfortable rooms at what one supporter calls ``the Cadillac of shelters.''

Residents can stay for up to three months, but they must be working toward stability -- trying to find housing, employment, or social security income. One single mother and her son are close to moving out -- she has had a job offer. A father with his 12-year-old son are living here until he can get enough money to go back home to Alaska. A young single woman happily vacuums the hallway and watchs after the children. She says she would like to get a job as live-in helper to a family.

Wherever one meets the homeless, one can find people who, despite their dire situations, are friendly and eager to talk.

But the quiet dignity that many of the homeless display, can't hide evidence of the toll this life takes. In Los Angeles, Richard sits by himself, his back against a wall, a shopping cart full of his belongings next to him on the sidewalk. He looks tired and says he has been living on the streets for six months.

``I don't have enough income. . . .When I had a little change, I stayed in hotels,'' says the former mechanic from Chicago. Richard has been on general relief, but is not now.

Does he think he can find work?

``It's debatable,'' he says, adding that job-training programs don't hold much hope for him. ``I'm 50 years old. It's hard for me.''

``I'll wait,'' says Richard, looking resigned. ``Maybe I can make a little change.'' First of four articles. Next: the mentally ill among the homeless.

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