Thursday, February 12, 2009

Are more people homeless? "Point in Time" results start to trickle in.

Every year in January communities across the country participate in "Point in Time" counts of homeless people, an initiative of the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It's not as easy as just calling up shelter directors and asking for their census; volunteers take flashlight and sometimes warm coffee and hit the alleys, abandoned buildings and riverbanks to find the unsheltered homeless. I've always wondered why this count doesn't take place in May, where the unsheltered homeless are a bit easier to spot, but it is what it is.

Officials from my home city Springfield, Massachusetts are having a press conference today to announce that the number of homeless single people has gone down but the number for homeless families has risen, leading to an overall increase in homelessness. A random sampling of cities doesn't look good. Elizabeth City, North Carolina found one less person homeless than from the previous year's census, but McHenry County, Illinois found a 36% increase. Billings, Montana found 10% more homeless people than last year. Nineteen of twenty-five cities polled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported an average 12% more homeless people in their cities over last year. I can't imagine that figures are going to improve for the year ahead.

Foreclosures are driving up family homelessness in a big way, and it's not just the individual homeowners who are suffering. Many renters keep paying their rent, unaware of the fact that owners are in default. I've known a number of people who moved into an apartment one month, only to be evicted by a bank the very next month! Yes, sadly, there are property owners that unscrupulous.

Children pay the highest price of homelessness. Their nutrition is likely to suffer, especially if they're temporarily housed in motels, the way 673 Massachusetts families are right this moment-- can't cook in a motel room. Homeless kids miss more school days, even though many counties try very hard to help kids get to school. But the problem is outpacing school systems' ability to cope. The largest school district in Arizona has 28% more homeless kids this year than last.

The blog Invisible Homeless Kids is helping to promote a new campaign to pass the H.R. 29, the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2009, which will make sure that homeless children and also homeless teens not with their families are counted as homeless-- believe it or not, they're often excluded from the count, skewing the number of actual homeless. You can get more information about the bill at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Then take action.

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