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Homelessness in the US, Past and Present

July 11, 2009 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Homelessness, generally considered an urban problem, seems to be creeping into smaller cities and towns. New research from the Office of Housing and Urban Development says it’s also impacting more families.  

Victims of Homelessness

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Thursday, the Office of Housing and Urban Development released its annual study on homelessness to Congress. Although the size of the homeless population didn’t increased significantly between 2007 and 2008, hovering at about 1.6 million, HUD discovered a worrying 9 percent increase in the number of homeless families.

The report also noted that homelessness had spread outside of urban boundaries. “Residents of suburban and rural communities made up about a third of those in need of housing, up from about 24 percent the year before,” reported The Associated Press.

Because national surveys are time intensive, HUD has started to implement quarterly regional surveys as part of the Homeless Pulse Project. The first surveys were drawn from both major cities and small towns in 9 regions. Of these, five witnessed a drop in the number of homeless people in shelters, and four saw an increase.

Using the quarterly surveys, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told the AP, “[W]e will be able to better understand the impact of the current economic crisis on homelessness across the country.”

In March, a study from the National Center on Family Homelessness reported that 1.5 million, or 1 in 50, children in America are homeless each year, according to CNN.

The official report, titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” summarizes the problems homeless children must cope with, from a lack of comfort and privacy, to more serious concerns like poor health care and disrupted schooling.

The study issued a report card and a call to action for each state, grading them on four elements: “child homelessness, child well-being, structural risk factors, and state-by-state policy and planning efforts.”

Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana received the worst reports, while Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, North Dakota and Hawaii excelled, reported CNN.

According to the report, between 2005 and 2006, three-quarters of the U.S.’s homeless children (those that could be identified as homeless) lived in 11 states.

Even if a child isn’t made homeless by the recession he may still feel its impact. Jean Lovelace the principal at Whitney Elementary in Boise, Idaho, cites the example of a student with ADHD whose family lost their home after his mother was fired from her job.

Lovelace said his bad behavior started just after the foreclosure. Now he is moving to another state where homes are cheaper. As school counselor Ana Leon, explained to the AP, “Mobility is one of the main things that hinders student achievement.”

Lovelace noted, “Honestly I think he’s going to go to the next school and just be out of control.”

Video: Melissa’s Story

In a video advertisement for Family Services, a woman named Melissa—her last name isn’t given—describes how after graduating from nursing school she got addicted to drugs and became homeless in less than a year. She recalls, “I remember that feeling of becoming more and more disassociated from normal society, and becoming one of ‘them.’ … You feel worthless.”

Background: Studies of America's homeless

According to HUD’s Annual Assessment Report, 68 percent of homeless people live in the country’s largest cities, while 32 percent live in rural areas; 62 percent of homeless people are minorities; 64 percent of “sheltered homeless adults” are male and 12 percent are veterans.

Results of The National Center on Family Homelessness study published in March 2009, using data from 2005-2006, found that homeless children in America are more likely to be African American or Native American, reported CNN. It also noted that 42 percent of homeless children are below the age of 6, and predicted that 1.16 million of children currently homeless will not graduate high school.

According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness,
42 percent of homeless people in America live on the streets, in their cars, in tents or in vacant buildings.

With more than 5,000 homeless people in 50 street blocks, the area of Los Angeles known as “Skid Row” is considered the most striking example of homelessness in the country, Reuters reported.

Historical Context: Tent cities today and yesterday

In 1932, during the Great Depression, the rate of unemployment was nearly 25 percent, reported the Smithsonian. The nation’s homeless began establishing communities for themselves in temporary shacks called “Hoovervilles.”

One such community in Washington, D.C., belonged to the “Bonus Army,” angry veterans who came to the capital to claim payments promised eight years prior, after WWI had ended.

Novelist John Dos Pasos described the scene: “The men are sleeping in lean-tos built out of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, packing crates, bits of tin or tarpaper roofing, every kind of cockeyed makeshift shelter from the rain, scraped out of the city dump.”

In September 2008, findingDulcinea reported on the sudden development of “tent cities” in Santa Barbara, Seattle, and Athens, Ga. In Reno, Nev., the government allowed 150 homeless people to set up makeshift tents in a parking lot, where plans for an official shelter were still in process.

In Ontario, Calif., an area known as “Tent City” grew from 200 to 400 people in three months, causing government officials to intervene. Anyone choosing to pitch a tent there was required to prove they had been at one point Ontario residents. While some of Tent City’s settler’s had lost their homes to foreclosure, others said their rent had been raised, and they simply couldn’t afford to pay it.

Maria Romero, 52, a homeless woman living in Sacramento, told Reuters she would rather live out of her car than move to a tent city. She added, “It wouldn’t be safe, especially for a single female.”

Related Topic: Images of the Great Depression

In the 1930s, renowned photographer Dorothea Lange captured the lives of migrant workers in the rural Southwest. Lange’s photographs told the story of families uprooted by the Dust Bowl, trying to eke out a living as cotton pickers.

The Library of Congress’ American Memory Project hosts photographs of Depression Era communities, known as “Hoovervilles” in Oregon, California and Ohio.
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