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The Hidden Disgrace - Homelessness In America

By James Donahue

As economic times intensify, the number of homeless people is growing expeditiously.  We suspect the problem is getting severe, although finding any agency keeping statistics is fruitless. Even tracking the whereabouts of veterans fails to bring up trustworthy numbers when it comes to counting the homeless.

They are America’s invisible victims of the financial disaster imposed on what once was the richest nation in the world. Invisible because those who still have jobs and still live in warm comfortable homes do not wish to look at them . . . knowing they also are no more than one paycheck away from being in that condition.

Like a bloody traffic accident scene, passing a homeless person on the street is a slash of reality that most American’s do not wish to stop and focus on.

There was a time in America when we shunned beggars on the street, or people getting welfare checks, or passing food stamps in grocery stores because we knew that jobs were plentiful. All these people needed to do were go to work instead of depending on public welfare, we reasoned. But in reality, even then, the issue was not as simple as we perceived it.

Humans encounter a multitude of personal issues that can lead to poverty and loss of a home. These include divorce, loss of jobs, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, lack of education or social skills.

That was then. This is now, however. Today we find ourselves in the midst of a financial melt-down brought about by the collapse of a mortgage bubble created by some very wealthy and powerful bankers and money lenders, with the help of a corrupt federal government.

While statistics show that the income of the top percent of the population has increased, the increase of the rest of the people has fallen. It is clear that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. The rich have figured out ways to prosper from the suffering and lack of money of the rest. For example, the rising cost of housing, low wages and increasing unemployment is forcing working class people out of jobs and putting them in situations where they cannot qualify for mortgage payments or pay rent.

How bad has it gotten? One recent report said it is now estimated that more than 200,000 children in the United States do not have homes. Forty-two percent of these children are under five years of age. Homeless families make up forty percent of the total homeless population.

Because the homeless live in forests, under bridges, in shanty-towns in obscure areas, or in vacant buildings, it is extremely difficult to count their numbers, or even find them once they disappear into that void. They have no address, no telephone number or drivers license. Without those kinds of papers, they find it hard to qualify for food stamps or other government assistance, so they beg for food or scrounge for it in public dumpsters.

One agency that has been attempting to keep a tally has been the National Coalition for the Homeless. But statistics provided by this agency fall back to 1996, long before the current economic crash began having its effect on the lives of even the middle class working people.

Even in 1996 the agency counted 346,000 households, or about 444,000 individuals in the street. That translated to 6.3 percent of the population of people living in poverty. At yet another time that same year, the count increased to 842,000 homeless people, which amounted to nearly 10 percent of Americans living in poverty. These numbers showed at an estimated one percent of the total U.S. population was homeless.

These statistics were collected from a national survey of service providers, and not all homeless people utilize these services. Thus the real number of homeless people, even in 1996,  is believed to have been much higher. The Urban Institute is estimating the number to have been as high as 3.5 million people.

Of this number, 39 percent were children under age 18, and 43 percent were women. Mamilies with children made up 33 percent of the homeless population. And veterans, even before the Iraq war, comprised 40 percent of the homeless.

Another interesting statistics from 1996 was that 25 percent of the homeless were employed, but not earning enough to make rent payments.

Add statistics like this to our current situation, with mass layoffs occurring nationwide, mortgages falling into default, veterans returning home from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts both physically and mentally incapacitated and receiving little or no federal assistance, and we know that millions more are either in the street, or headed there before the next year is out. With severe cold, snow, floods and storms ravaging the country, how can they survive?

In Detroit, where the jobless rate recently hit 21 percent, police say people are committing crimes to get in jail where they can be assured of a warm bed and three meals a day. Many of those in jail do not want to go free because they have no place to live.

A recent story in the New York Times quoted a representative for the Coalition for the Homeless as estimating 3,500 homeless veterans living just in New York as of October, 2008.

So what is it like to be homeless?

One unidentified writer, who obviously experienced homelessness, said “you learn a new appreciation for things that you once took for granted, like having an every-ready toilet. You miss your sink, shower or tub and hot running water. You miss the refrigerator and stove; the table to sit at to eat a meal. When you wake up in the morning every part of your body hurts. Your feet develop calluses and sores from walking everywhere and keeping your shoes on 24 hours a day. Even in a warm climate you are constantly cold, tired and hungry.

The writer noted that homeless people “become an instant criminal. Even if you are lucky enough to have a vehicle, laws make it a crime to sleep anywhere. You are outside in rain, sleet, snow, heat and gale force winds. Even if you are able to find an illegal bit of shelter from the elements, those winds often blow the freezing rain into them. An alcoholic can give up hopes of drying out while living on the streets. Alcohol not only keeps you warm, it sillies the mind so you do not have to think.”

Homeless people reach a point where they do irrational things. Women will go home with strange men, just to get a warm bed for the night. They beg for money and food. Some commit crimes so they can be sentenced to time in jail where they have a warm bed, toilet and warm meals.

This is what is happening to hundreds of thousands of Americans, through no fault of their own. They are victims of evil cutthroat greed that is sapping the financial strength of the heart of our once great nation.