US shelters swell - with families

Recession and Sept. 11 are causing more homelessness, which may echo '80s crisis.

At the end of the 1990s, the economic boom prompted serious talk about the possibility of ending homelessness in America. Last year, a national coalition produced a 10-year plan that even some skeptics admitted sounded viable.

Now, the economic downturn, exacerbated by the events of Sept. 11, has those same national leaders predicting a dramatic rise in homelessness reminiscent of the crisis at the end of the 1980s.

The signs are emerging throughout the country:

• A record number of people are crowding into shelters in New York. The fastest-rising group among them: families.

• In Georgia, almost 90 percent of shelters and service providers for the homeless are reporting an increase in requests for help with everything from a bed for the night to emergency assistance in paying utility bills and rent.

• In Chicago, all the city's shelter beds for families are full, forcing the city to regularly look for emergency alternatives, such as hotels.

Families of the working poor appear to be hit the hardest by the combination of high housing prices - a legacy of the '90s - and shrinking job opportunities. In New York, for instance, of the 80,000 people who lost their jobs in October, almost half were low-wage service workers.

"Our biggest worry is that the worst impact in terms of rising homelessness as a result of those job losses hasn't been seen yet and won't be seen for a couple of months," says Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York. "Things are already worse than they were in the late '80s, because we're now dealing with more families with children."

Funding squeeze

At the same time that demand for shelter and homeless-prevention services are on the rise, providers report a funding squeeze as a result of tight state budgets and contributors who are tapped out by the terrorist tragedies.

Even groups that diversified their funding sources by requiring contributions from some shelter inhabitants are finding themselves in a bind. For instance, in Georgia, several shelter programs are designed to help people reenter the housing market by providing an array of services such as education, job training, and child care. Once someone in the family is working, he or she is required to pay 30 percent of their income to help pay for those services. But with tens of thousands of low-wage jobs now drying up, so has that source of income for the shelters.

"It's like a triple-edged sword. We're suffering from funding cuts, contributors' cuts, and now the program money is down," says Katheryn Preston, executive director of the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness in Atlanta.

For families like Lisa and Leo and their two children, ages 1 and 6, the nation's overburdened services translate into nights in a series of shelters - and sometimes on benches in New York City offices when the shelters are full. The family became homeless in August a few months after Lisa lost her job as an operator with a pager service.

"I want to go to college and finish my computer skills so I can work. But living like this, I can't do anything. We're constantly on the move," she says.

Lisa's family troubles began, in part, with the year-long economic downturn. But Marion Legare was tossed out of work and his apartment as a direct result of the Sept. 11 attacks. He was working as a contract hourly employee in a cafeteria on the 43rd floor of Tower 1 when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He and his co-workers made it out, but when he went to his company to look for more work, there was none. He soon fell behind on his rent and his utilities and found himself living in a shelter.

"I've been running around trying to apply for whatever jobs and assistance I can," he says.

With help from the Red Cross and the Coalition for the Homeless, Mr. Legare was able to pay some back rent and utilities. This week, after more than a month in the shelter, he was able to return to his apartment. But he's unsure about his future. He still doesn't have a job. He's thinking about taking one as a messenger, but it pays only minimum wage - not enough to cover his rent.

Two bedrooms? Not likely

A study released last month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington found there's nowhere in the US where a person working full time at the minimum wage can afford a typical two-bedroom apartment. The wage pays for a one-bedroom apartment in only 10 jurisdictions.

"There's an extraordinary mismatch between rental housing costs and what low-wage workers earn," says the coalition's president, Sheila Crowley. "With a housing market like that, what you have is a fairly dangerous game of musical chairs, where some people fall out of the game and become homeless."

Because it has proved so difficult to create affordable housing without subsidies, Ms. Crowley and other housing advocates contend that to prevent another homeless crisis, there are only two alternatives: The government could step in with more subsidies and encourage the development of affordable housing, or it could increase the minimum wage.

But many are doubtful the latter will happen. So homeless and housing advocates are hoping for increased money for subsidies.

"We know how to prevent homelessness. We just need the political will and the resources to do it," says Kitty Cole, senior vice president of the Lakefront SRO, a single-room occupancy agency for the formerly homeless in Chicago. "If we dealt with the small number of people who are chronically homeless and provided good prevention services for families that are on the edge, we could solve the problem. I know we could."

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