A spike in homeless families

The recession is changing the makeup of homelessness in America to include more families and more people in suburbs and rural areas. Private and public services for the homeless – concentrated on individuals and in urban areas – must now quickly adjust.

Last year, the number of individuals who used a shelter or other transitional housing in the US basically held steady, at 1.6 million, according to federal figures.

But the number of people in homeless families – typically a mother with two children – increased by 9 percent overall. Alarmingly, it rose by more than 50 percent in suburban and rural areas. In all, more than 500,000 individuals in families were homeless last year, about a third of the homeless population.

The nation can build on its recent success in reducing homelessness. Between 2005 and 2007, the number of chronic homeless – mentally ill or otherwise disabled people without a residence over the long term – fell by 30 percent, to 123,833. A coordinated nationwide effort was made to move from merely managing this group to helping them find permanent housing and assigning them case workers.

The needs of the chronically homeless may not mirror those of a family on the economic edge. But the overall approach must be the same: keeping or finding stable homes for them.

Fortunately, $1.2 billion of federal stimulus money for homelessness was released this month to communities across America. By assisting with rent and utilities, the funds can prevent households from losing their residences. And by providing funds for expensive up-front costs such as security deposits, the federal help aims to quickly move people out of shelters. To avoid fraud and abuse, the monies are paid to third parties, such as landlords.

Homelessness is a lagging economic indicator, and while the overall numbers may have held steady last year, they're expected to increase. At some point, people wear out their welcome with friends or relatives or can no longer afford a motel room. Shelters are seeing an increase in homeless families headed by professionals or skilled workers. Some shelters say they're full and are having to turn families away.

Homeless experts say the federal stimulus money will help greatly, but it's not enough. Local governments and charities will have to increase their efforts. Yet they, too, are cash-strapped. One answer, says Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, is for religious groups to gear up for these families.

He points to the 20-year interfaith network, Family Promise. Its participating churches, synagogues, and other groups have provided tens of thousands of families temporary shelter in their facilities and then helped them to stabilize.

America is a country of big hearts. It can rise to this challenge, as it has already proven this with the chronically homeless.

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