"My favorite saying is, 'People deserve another chance just when you think they least deserve it' -- and I truly believe that," said Janice Terry, a 40-year-old mother of three in Youngstown, Ohio.

Terry, who grew up the oldest of three children born to working class parents in nearby West Farmington, spent much of the last decade on a squalid and profoundly self-destructive odyssey through drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness and -- as she tells it -- eventual redemption. Seated at a conference table inside the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley, the faith-based homeless facility that fostered her comeback, Terry says she is now two years sober and completing online coursework toward a degree in web design.

Then she begins to cry. "You can't give up on people, because there's always some good in them," she says, wiping away tears.

Terry's mistakes were many, and even at a time when the plight of the down-and-out is on the lips of those vying for national office, her repeated forays into drugs, and the many trade-offs she made to feed that habit -- from temporarily losing her children to turning tricks in back alleys -- would be unlikely to garner much sympathy. A struggling economy has shuffled those living with addiction or homelessness out of the spotlight.

Terry's brother at 12, and then late last year,
a few months before he died of a drug overdose.
(Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)

Drug and alcohol addiction, along with mental illness or other emotional problems, are often inextricable from homelessness and the persistence of abject poverty. Although not precise, federal data have suggested that 38 percent of homeless people are dependent on alcohol, while a little more than a quarter struggle with drug habits.

From her wallet, Terry produces a picture of her younger brother at the age of 12, and on her phone she brings up an image taken of him late last year, just a few months before he died of a drug overdose. He was addicted to crack cocaine.

"People always deserve another chance," Terry says, "because everybody is just one bad decision away from being where I was. My 11-year-old -- he cusses at me and talks about me being a crackhead. That's the punishment I get for my mistakes."

Roughly 650,000 Americans are homeless on any given night, according to the most recent count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development. The United States Conference of Mayors recently asked 25 cities to list what they considered the top three causes of homelessness, according to data highlighted recently by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"Substance abuse was the single largest cause of homelessness for single adults -- reported by 68 percent of cities," the coalition noted.

A separate 2007 study by Eugenia Didenko and Nicole Pankratz, researchers at the Centre for Addictions Research at Canada's University of Victoria, found that roughly two-thirds of homeless people point to drugs, alcohol or some combination of both as playing a significant role in driving them to the streets.

Jim Echement of the Rescue Mission of
Mahoning Valley suggests there is little political
capital in campaigning for the homeless.
(Photo by Tom Zeller Jr.)

One night at the end of 2008, Terry says a john wrapped a seatbelt around her neck and raped her. When she found herself, less than 24 hours later, out of the hospital and back on the streets chasing a high, she knew she'd hit bottom. She went to an emergency room and begged to be admitted to a psychiatric ward.

Terry eventually connected to the Rescue Mission, where she encountered a vigorous program of concentrated addiction intervention, dedicated social work and Bible study. She remained there for the next 19 months.

"I always tell my husband, if I ever hit the lottery, I would like to go around the country and set up more shelters," Terry says. "But I want something like this. I don't want a place where people can just come and sleep. Here they offer a big service doing the drug interventions, and having the people come in and work so closely with the people who are here. I think they should have more places like that."

But in the relentlessly sluggish economy, one state after another, has slashed public funding for homeless programs. Others states have targeted millions of dollars used to support mental health and substance abuse programs.

The Rescue Mission takes no public money and is funded entirely by donations, said Jim Echement, the director of development, who is cagey in addressing questions of policy. "We're apolitical here. We provide a service to the community and there's no burden on them."

But when pressed, he allows that the plight of people like Terry -- a demographic lacking both visibility and political clout -- is rarely a priority for most elected officials.

"It's been my experience -- and I've got some miles on me -- that unless there's political capital in it for them, people are not going to stick their necks out," he says. "And that's the mindset that just kills me."

Terry has a solution: "If you're applying for a position in government where you can change the laws that are going to affect me, I think you should have to come and live my life for year before you're voted into office," she says. "You get on welfare. You go through the struggles that a lot of us do. That way you can see where we're coming from."

To learn more about the work of the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley, visit rescuemissionmv.org. For more data and information on how you can help address homlessness in the United States, visit the National Coalition for the Homeless, or download the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development.