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Christine Schanes

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Homelessness By The Numbers

Posted: 04/10/09 11:47 AM ET

Raise your hand if you've ever seen a person who you thought was homeless. I can see that all hands are up!

I'll be 61 years old this week and when I was young, the situation was not as it is now. In my youth, the vast majority of people who were homeless were men. There were very few women and even less children who were homeless.

In the old days, we called those homeless men words like, "hobos" or worse. We envisioned them "riding the rails," jumping on and off railroad freight cars and living a life that they chose, free of cares and woes. At that time, the homeless life was romanticized and movies were made, such as "Emperor of the North" staring Lee Marvin, which depicted homeless men enjoying life to the fullest without any reflection on their possible responsibilities to society.

Today, this is not the picture of homelessness. In my experience, I have found:

• 40% of the people who are homeless are women and children. There are no happy movies about their lifestyles, in fact, barely anyone is talking about their plight. And, certainly, these women and children have not chosen to be homeless. As if things could not get worse, the number of women and children who are becoming homeless is increasing.

• 25% of today's homeless people are people who have served in war, generally the Vietnam War. I thought this number would be decreasing, but with the Iraqi War veterans returning with little or no care for their mental and physical health, it's going to remain at the 25% level for quite some time. The Department of Defense has found that 17% of returning Iraqi War veterans are returning with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD (formerly called "battle fatigue") is a condition that may exist for its victims from 30 to 40 years.

• 35% of the people I've found to be homeless today are men who have had a devastating negative experience of some kind.

Where has the free lifestyle of homelessness gone? I suggest that view that there was ever a free lifestyle that people chose to live by being homeless was a myth. It never happened. But, the myth provided a good storyline for movies.

What happened in sixty years? Who are homeless people? Why are they living outside? Why don't they have homes? Oh my God, what happened?

In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released their report, "Homelessness Counts" citing:

• 672,000 people were homeless each night in the United States (population over 300 million).

• 3.5 million people are homeless throughout the year in the United States.

• Nearly 160,000 people are homeless in the State of California (total population 36 million).

In their report, "2007 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count", the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority (LAHSA) found that in Los Angeles County (population over 10 million), California there are:

• Over 10,000 children and teens who are homeless every night.

• Nearly 74,000 homeless men, women and children each night in the County.

• Over 141,000 people experienced homelessness in Los Angeles over the course of 2006.

In "2006 Short-Term Housing Directory of Los Angeles County," Shelter Partnership determined that there are just over 17,000 shelter beds in all of the homeless shelters for the 74,000 people who are homeless every night. Obviously, people are living "outside" because there is no room in the "inn."

What are the causes of homelessness?

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) published a number of causes for homelessness in their fact sheet in June of 2008:

• Increasing poverty caused by eroding employment opportunities and declining public assistance.

The NCH noted that "[h]omelessness and poverty are inextricably linked" because when resources are limited, people often lose their housing. It adds, "Being poor means being an illness, an accident or a paycheck away from living on the streets."

• Lack of affordable housing.

• Lack of affordable health care.

• Domestic violence.

• Mental illness.

• Addiction disorders.

In 2000, The National Alliance to End Homelessness published, "A Plan, Not A Dream: How to End Homelessness" which gives a very brief explanation of how homelessness developed: "While the seeds of homelessness were planted in the 1960s and 1970s with deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people and loss of affordable housing stock, widespread homelessness did not emerge until the 1980s."

It lists several factors that affected the increase in homelessness:

• Lack of affordable housing.

• Income from employment and benefits not keeping pace with costs of available housing.

• Social trends, including illegal drugs, single parent households and "thinning support networks."

What is being done about ending homelessness?

On March 24, 2009, President Obama stated in his news conference that homelessness is unacceptable: "Part of a change in attitudes that I want to see here in Washington and all across the country is a belief that it is not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours."

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) commented on their website, nlchp.com, in "News," dated March 25, 2009, that "Homeless is indeed unacceptable. But the President's clear statement of this obvious fact is remarkable."

In "News," NLCHP founder and executive director, Maria Foscarinis, stated, "This is the first time in recent memory that a president has made such a clear and unequivocal statement [about homelessness]"

The NLCHP, through "News," further reminds us that in the early 1980's President Ronald Reagan called homelessness "a lifestyle choice," while "President George W. Bush made a commitment to end 'chronic homelessness,' - the most narrowly defined category - in ten years."

In President Obama's press conference on March 24th, Kevin Chappel commented "[A] recent report found that as a result of the economic downturn, 1 in 50 children are now homeless in America. With shelters at full capacity, tent cities are sprouting up across the country."

He asked the President, "In passing the stimulus package, you said that help was on the way. But what would you say to these families, especially the children, who are sleeping under bridges and in tents across the country?"

President Obama replied, "Well, the first thing I'd say is that I'm heartbroken that any child in America is homeless. And the most important thing that I can do on their behalf is to make sure their parents have a job. And that's why the recovery package said, as a first priority, how are we going to save or create 3.5 million jobs?"

In fact, the stimulus package of which President Obama speaks is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The funding for this Act is over 800 billion dollars of which 1.5 billion dollars is to be devoted to homelessness prevention and rehousing activities.

I look forward to your comments. Thanks, Christine