Homelessness: The Widening Chasm

Meant to get this out last week but got busy…

Got a roof over your head? Count your blessings.


Tent cities have been getting increased ink lately as cities not accustomed to handing what has been a steadily escalating, bewildered parade of homeless Americans gravitate to such communities as a desperate, last resort.  Where weather is relatively hospitable, such communities are far more practical and easier to accommodate than in others, where the hawk bites down hard and changing seasons mean more than inconvenience or discomfort to those without shelter…where, indeed, exposure can be life threatening.

Look at the stats for different American cities around the country.

  • In Chicago, calls to a homelessness prevention hotline were 59% higher in February than a year earlier, says Nancy Radner, head of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. “We’re getting requests from people earning more than $30,000 a year, even $65,000. That’s unprecedented.”
  • In Miami-Dade County, the number of people calling for help after getting an eviction notice jumped from 1,000 in 2007 to 4,000 last year, David Raymond of the county’s Homeless Trust says. “We’ve beefed up our prevention efforts,” he says, so fewer people become homeless.
  • In Los Angeles, 620 families used the winter shelter program this winter, compared with 330 families a year earlier, manager David Martel says.
  • Seattle-King County The county has not released its total. This year’s number of street dwellers rose 2% overall but 40% in the suburbs, says Bill Block, project director of the Committee to End Homelessness In King County.


As charitable organizations and  homeless shelters struggle to accommodate skyrocketing need with resources dramatically cut and donations down, more families find they must fare for themselves.

Why?  Well, first, fewer folks have a roof over their heads.  Shelters are slammed and waiting lists, long.  Many shelters segregate men from women.  Couples often can’t stay together.  Family options are few.  Many “non-residential” shelters offer just a bed or a mat on the floor.  Residents must rise early (5 AM or so), eat a meager breakfast and then must the streets, where they’re on their own until supper (if there’s no  handy lunch program-remember, these folks are pedestrians and some suffer severe health impairments). Few day programs exist.

After an early supper, it may be time for a little worship, some hygiene (for the lucky ones) a little communal TV (again for a lucky few) followed by an “early to bed, lights-out/lock down,” then sleep.  Upon awakening, the cycle repeats.

No wonder so many families and couples opt to camp out.  There are still free meals to be had here and there and as a family, in their tent at least, they can stay together.

During the depression, large population sectors from places like Oklahoma, driven by drought, dust and death migrated to points west, where many started over. Empty Box Cars became a popular mode of transport for transients short the fare but still needing to get from here to there.  Citizens flocked to government-sponsored public works projects for jobs and a second chance.  Soup lines flourished.  Much of America went hungry. Homeless was widespread. Welcome to “Hooverville”.

Hard to predict where this is heading. Unless you’re in it, it’s difficult to imagine how living in a tent city may be preferable to a solid roof overhead.

We’re told that the brunt of the Sub Prime Mortgage Crisis is allegedly behind us (tell that to the families, many of whom are renters and don’t show up in the foreclosure stats.)  Even so, well after Sub Primes fell from grace, the bundling/sale of bad debt successfully convinced analysts and speculators that the boom would go on indefinitely.  Bankers turned to other instruments just as perilous (if not even more), including “Teaser” ARMS, no down-payment deals and “liar loans,”  These are to reset in 3-5 years.

Will we have recovered enough by then to avoid the full impact of the next wave?  If not, can social services develop to a point where increased need doesn’t break the backs of non-profits?

Time will tell.  In the meantime, if you own your home or feel you can at least maintain your mortgage payments through the near future, be truly thankful. This isn’t going away any time soon.

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