Archive for Sunday, August 19, 2001

Homeless population increasing

Lawrence numbers following national trend

August 19, 2001

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— They have jobs. They have families. What they don't have is a place to live.

Homeless shelters across the country are reporting that they are seeing a return to the kinds of numbers witnessed during the 1980s, when recession and the mass release of mental patients led to a surge in homelessness.

Lawrence numbers are on the rise as well.

"There's definitely been an increase," said Saunny Scott, member of Lawrence Coalition for Homeless Concerns, which is running a temporary shelter during the summer.

Families without shelter

Now, however, the fastest-growing segment of the rising homeless population is made up of working-poor families.

"Shelters are full of people everywhere," said Barbara Anderson, who runs a 60-bed shelter near Louisville, Ky., and serves on the board of a national homelessness group. "But the dynamics have changed in the last 10 years. What you see are people working 40 hours a week and making $6.50 an hour, and they're homeless."

Scott said Lawrence's temporary shelter, currently located at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1245 N.H., had housed several couples, but no families with children.

"We're just hoping the reason we don't have families with children is not because they don't feel welcome but because they've found better accommodations," Scott said.

The shelter has housed as many as 40 people but averages about 30 a night, she said, adding that many of the shelter's homeless have jobs, but still can't afford a place to live.

One-two punch

For families squeezed by housing costs that have risen faster than wages, an unexpected expense or a layoff can lead to missed rent payments and eviction.

"In Lawrence, it's hard because the rents here are exorbitant," Scott said. "They're unusually high."

If relatives or friends cannot provide temporary quarters, a homeless shelter is the only alternative.

"What you see is the one-two punch of an overheated economy, which tends to drive up housing costs, and now the cooling off, which has meant that people have been losing their jobs and can't afford to keep a roof over their heads," said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, director of New York's Coalition for the Homeless.

One of the men who comes by the temporary shelter in Lawrence is starting a new job Monday, Scott said.

"He's got everything worked out except how to get his laundry done," Scott said. "Until he gets paid, I guess a laundry mat's out. Once you get stuck in it, it's just hard to get out."

Imprecise statistics

Increases in the number of homeless families have been reported in New York, Chicago, Washington, D. C. and Oakland, Calif., among other cities. Precise numbers are scarce because few cities compile statistics on the number of people in homeless shelters.

No one keeps an official tally of the Kansas homeless population, but people like Scott who work the homeless shelters' doors say they have seen an increase in the last year.

New York, which has been keeping count since the early 1980s because of a court order requiring the city to provide shelter to all its homeless, is now on track to set a record high sometime this month, Sullivan said.

In July, the city's homeless shelters averaged 28,029 a night, up more than 30 percent in a year. The city's all-time high for the number of homeless in city shelters was 28,737 in March 1987.

"Back in the late '80s, there didn't seem to be a street or public space that didn't have someone living on it," said Sullivan. "And to say, in our newly sanitized New York, that we're going to cross the threshold should be truly shocking."

Last month's statistics show that 20,655 of those in shelters were members of families, including 11,594 children. The number of families seeking temporary housing shot up to 6,252, an increase of about 1,000 in one year.

Since it opened two years ago, Haven House, the shelter Anderson runs in Jeffersonville, Ind., has been filled to capacity. During extremely hot or cold weather, as many as 82 people have crowded into a facility meant for 60.

Of the 899 people she has sheltered, more than a third have been children under age 18. And of the 365 adults in that group, only 18 had no income.

Support gone, rent up

"The support system isn't there anymore," said Anderson, referring to the 1996 welfare reform act, which sharply reduced welfare rolls. "They start making enough dollars that they lose their subsidized housing. There's no way for them not to be homeless."

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates that there are about 15,000 homeless people on any given night in the city but there are only about 5,000 beds in Chicago shelters. A city study found that city shelters turned away more than 10,000 families between June 1998 and June 1999. Families make up about 40 percent of the city's homeless.

"We have families that have been living in warming centers for months," said the coalition's Samir Goswami, who notes that soup kitchen usage has been on the rise this year, indicating an increase in Chicago's homeless population. "And a warming center might be nothing more than a church basement with mats on the floor."

That reflects another national trend: longer stays in shelters. In the early 1990s, the average stay in New York's shelter system was about five months. Now, it's more than 11 months, Sullivan said. That's because it has become harder for homeless families to find a new place to live.

"There's no question that housing prices have been going up several times the rate of inflation, and that is clearly having an impact on their exiting the homeless system," said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the heart of the housing problem is the federal Section 8 program, which provides a subsidy for low-income families to bridge the gap between their income and a fair-market rent, as determined by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As housing prices have climbed, landlords have discovered that they can rent apartments for more than the fair-market rate, eliminating their incentive for accepting tenants with Section 8 vouchers.

In New York, for instance, the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $949, but such apartments often fetch far more on the open market.

"Even in the less desirable parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn apartments go for more than that," said the homeless coalition's Patrick Markee.

Last year, the federal government allocated 2,700 Section 8 vouchers to New York City, but 900 went unused because the recipients could not find landlords who would take them.

Wages fall behind

But while rents have been going through the roof, wages have not kept pace. Anderson says that if one adult in a family of four makes $6.50 an hour and rents a typical two-bedroom apartment in the Louisville area for about $525 a month, the family's expense will outstrip its income by several thousand dollars a year.

"They rob Peter to pay Paul," she said. "One month they pay utilities rather than rent, and the next month they pay rent rather than utilities. And then one month they can't pay the rent or the utilities."

To prevent such cash crunches from resulting in evictions, Illinois has a two-year-old program that gives low-income families up to $1,000 to cover rent, mortgages or utility bills. The $1 million program has proven so popular that it regularly runs out of money, but funding has more than doubled for fiscal 2002 to $2.4 million.

A long-term solution is for the minimum wage to be pegged to an area's housing costs, Anderson said. In Jeffersonville, across the Ohio River from Louisville, that would be $9.96 an hour, compared with the current average wage of $6.50 an hour that Anderson's homeless workers now earn.

"If we paid a living wage in this country, we could do away with a whole bunch of subsidies," she said. "The premise is that no one should work 40 hours a week and be homeless."

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