Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Home Sweet Homes

I was appalled at the glimpse of reality depicted in my recent entry. "Appalled" doesn't quite express the welter of emotions those scenes stirred up in me. Horror, pity, rage, disgust, sorrow. And the questions those scenes raised in my mind, foremost of which was: where are these people who once lived in these foreclosed houses? what's happened to them?

Unfortunately, the answer in many cases, as I found, is they are living on the streets. Maybe the ones living in tents are the lucky ones. Did you know that modern-day Hoovervilles are springing up all over the country? They tend to be a bit more stylish than the Depression-era shanties--we're talking tents, tent cities sprouting like mushrooms everywhere.

Do we need any better symbol of a society in crisis than this phenomenon? These are cities in the United States of America: Chattanooga, Santa Barbara, Reno, Athens, GA. Not Third World nightmare metropolises like Lagos, Mogadishu, Manila, or Mexico City. But what's so different about about the American situation? Thousands of wretched people scratching out some kind of marginal existence on the periphery of civilization (a term I use advisedly applied to what we've become under Bush) living in makeshift shelter.

Does anyone have an accurate estimate of how many homeless people are living on the streets of American cities? How many of them are children? How many people living on the streets have jobs but cannot affording housing? There's a recent serious study here that provides some glimpses at answers. To wit:

Of the 21 cities with data available, 193,183 unduplicated persons used transitional housing or emergency shelters in the past year. Of these people 23 percent are members of households with children, 23 percent are individuals, while one percent is made up of unaccompanied youth. One to three percent of the cities’ total population used a shelter or transitional housing in the past year. Singles and unaccompanied children remain homeless an average of 4.7 months while 5.7 months is the average for families with children in the 23 survey cities (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007). In 2006, officials estimated that, on average, single men comprise 51 percent of the homeless population, families with children 30 percent, single women 17 percent and unaccompanied youth 2 percent (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006). In 2007, the number for families with children decreased to 23% while the other numbers remain relatively steady (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007).

The homeless population is estimated to be 42 percent African American, 39 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Native American and 2 percent Asian. An average of 22 percent of homeless single people is considered mentally ill while 8 percent of homeless individuals in a household with children were found to have mental illnesses (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006). Thirty seven percent of single homeless people are substance abusers while 10 percent of adults with children are substance abusers. Thirteen percent of homeless singles and unaccompanied youth are employed, and 17.4 percent of members of homeless households with children are employed. (U.S. Conference of Mayors,2007)

The study goes on to say that "in virtually every city, the city's official estimated number of homeless people greatly exceeded the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing spaces . . . [and] there are few or no shelters in rural areas of the United States, despite significant levels of homelessness."

And that's why tent cities are proliferating. Hang on, if you don't have one yet, there's one coming to your very own city.
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