As biting cold and snow blanket much of the eastern United States, homelessness is on the rise. This, despite the fact that this month the US economy set a record for the longest expansion in the country's history.
From New York to Atlanta to San Francisco, shelter operators are reporting increases of as much as 10 percent over last year. The biggest hike is in families with children, many of whom recently had their welfare benefits reduced or terminated.
And the bitter winter weather is exacerbating the problem. At the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, shelters are overflowing so much they've opened a warehouse to temporarily house 500 additional single men.
More than 50 women and children are in the office "hanging out on chairs and sleeping on the floor" until beds can be found. "We find that people who don't normally come into the shelter system do in this terrible weather," says executive director Anita Beaty.
Several studies over the past year have indicated the number of people needing shelter was on the rise. On Feb. 1, the Urban Institute released a national analysis of census data showing those increases are apparently part of a long-term trend. In 1987, the government estimated as many as 500,000 to 600,000 homeless people used shelter services at any one time during the year. In 1996, that estimate jumped to as high as 842,000 people, even as the economy surged ahead.
"Close to 10 percent of poor people in this country become homeless at some time during the year," says Martha Burt of the Urban Institute, whose analysis is considered by many to be the most comprehensive of its kind. "Certainly the conditions that generate homelessness have not gone away, even if the economy is booming."
Critics note such statistics aren't always reliable. Reporting mechanisms vary around the country. And many homeless people don't use the shelter services unless absolutely necessary, making them difficult to count.
But experts believe the reasons for the increases include:
*The economic boom, which has increased housing prices as the wages of the very poor have stagnated or dropped. At the same time, the stock of affordable housing has shrunk by 19 percent since 1990.
*The increased capacity in the homeless system over the past decade, which allows more homeless to be counted.
*Impact of welfare reform.
Experts say the combination of these factors is changing the face of the homeless population. Thirty-four percent are now families with children, according to an analysis by the Department of Housing and Urban Development released in December. And 44 percent work at least part time, like Fred, who declined to state his last name.
A bike messenger who works part-time earning minimum wage, he fell behind on his rent about "three or four months ago" and has been homeless since.
He was sipping a bowl of free soup outside New York's Port Authority last Wednesday night as the temperature dipped below zero with the wind-chill factor.
"The problem is that rents are outrageous around here. There are a couple of flophouses, but you can't really secure anything in there," he said.
Experts say the likelihood of Fred finding an affordable apartment is smaller now than just a few years ago. "There are fewer housing subsidies targeted toward homeless people because of the new public-housing law," says Dennis Culhane, professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He says the law requires that most new subsidies go to the nonhomeless.
At the same time, studies show that more of the working poor are getting pushed into shelters. Homes for the Homeless provides shelters for over 550 families in New York City. More than 50 percent of those it's helped over the past year were working poor who had never been on public assistance.
"These are families with the mother and father working to make ends meet. They've got no medical coverage," says Dr. Ralph Nunez, of Homes. "Someone gets sick, they had to pay that medical bill, they can't pay the rent, bang! They're homeless."
Ten years ago, 17 percent of the people who called the homeless hot line in Atlanta needing a place to stay were working. At the time, Ms. Beaty says, she and her staff were stunned. They had assumed that people lost their jobs first, before becoming homeless. Now, between 37 percent and 40 percent of callers asking for shelter have earned income.
"We're seeing shelters fast becoming housing for minimum-wage workers," she says.
Then there's the impact of the welfare reform on people like Delenna Price. A young single mother who had her second child just a week ago, she says increased paperwork and a snafu at the New York welfare department has kept her from receiving emergency housing assistance. She and her two children are staying with her mother and three other people in a one-bedroom apartment, but she can't live there much longer. "I need somewhere to live so I can get a job and support myself and my kids," she says.
A survey of homeless shelters around the US last year by the Institute for Children in Poverty found that 37 percent of families on welfare had their benefits reduced or terminated. Of those, 20 percent said that contributed directly to their homelessness.
"We're seeing a very direct connection," says Mary Brosnahan, executive director of New York's Coalition for the Homeless. "Certainly, between 30 and 40 percent [of welfare recipients] are graduating ... into employment, but the bottom 25 percent are falling deeper into poverty and many into literal homelessness."
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