San Francisco: A Chevron employee is forced to move his family of four into their Mitsubishi Gallant after being laid off…
Atlanta: Jeniece Richards moved from Michigan to Atlanta a year ago, but despite her best efforts, and two college degrees, remains homeless. She is living in temporary housing with her two children and younger brother…
Denver: As Carrie Hinkle’s hours dwindled, she was forced to choose between paying rent or buying food for her daughter. The two are now working with local agencies towards permanent housing, again…
These stories, plucked from the headlines of the past months are more than the typical holiday coverage. They show faces of the newly homeless, growing as the economy crumbles and opportunities fade.
Facing layoffs and deep cuts in working hours, many in fragile circumstances could no longer afford their mortgage. More commonly, they were renting from a landlord who foreclosed on their residence. Healthy, hardworking and addiction-free, the new homeless are closer in demeanor and behavior to our neighbors than the overly-typified street drunk.
Homeless resource programs across the country have been reporting record requests for assistance. A recent report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that, of 21 cities surveyed, 20 reported an increase in requests for food, with 59 percent coming from families. Nationwide, increased food stamps claims – a clear indicator of rising poverty – reached a record 31.6 million in September, up more than four million in a year according to the New York Times.
California, which has had a homeless problem for decades, has become the epicenter for the newly homeless. The state’s unemployment rate rose to 8.4 percent in November from 5.4 percent in 2007, making it the third highest in the nation. Compounding the homeless problem is the state’s high foreclosure rates (third in the country, according to RealtyTrac data). Homeless programs from San Francisco to San Diego are reporting record numbers, mostly from newly homeless residents impacted by the housing crises or falling economy.
Sadly this surge in homelessness comes just after a period when the problem was finally getting under control. One study by the Interagency Council on Homelessness found a 12 percent decrease in overall homelessness when comparing 2005 to 2007 data. That same time period also reveals a staggering 30 percent decrease in chronic homelessness (defined as being homeless for either over a year or for multiple stints).
In 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness crafted their landmark Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. With successful bipartisan funding, 355 Ten Year Plans have been put into action nationwide.
Such plans, and a strong economy, accelerated the recent gains in the fight against homelessness. But the surge in newly homeless and shrinking budgets now threatens to reverse the progress.
New York City’s municipal shelter systems have seen record-setting increases over the past three months, according to the City’s Department of Homeless Services, but deep cuts loom ahead. Already, the city’s current budget includes a 3 million dollar decrease in outreach funding.
Denver plans to slash nearly a fourth of its funding for homeless initiatives at a time when the city reports a 38-percent increase in homelessness over the past year (Denver Post).
This situation will get much worse. A 20 percent increase of urban homelessness has been projected by the Interagency Council on Homelessness for 2009. Escalating homelessness and looming funding cuts create conditions for a renewed homeless crisis.
In the past debate has focused on the mentally ill and substance abusers, but the new homeless represent different phenomena. President-elect Obama has the responsibility to increase assistance to the degree that reflects the expanding problem. Washington seems all too willing to prop up the corporate players of the American economy, but let us not forget about the hardest hit by these times. Swift action must be taken to assure that the problem of the new homeless becomes no more than a historical footnote – to assure that we as Americans can look back with pride knowing that even during our hardest hour, all were cared for.
Ilie Mitaru is the founder and director of WebRoots Campaigns, based in Portland, OR, the company offers web and New Media strategy solutions to non-profits, political campaigns and market-driven clients.