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February 6th, 2009
04:54 PM ET

A crisis unfolds, and a solution too

The deepening recession has led to an increase in homelessness across the country. Here, in New Jersey, some people find shelter under the porch of a house.
The deepening recession has led to an increase in homelessness across the country. Here, in New Jersey, some people find shelter under the porch of a house.

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Rev. Andy Bales sees an iceberg ahead and fears how much more lies unseen below the surface.

"I think it's going to get a lot worse."

That iceberg is the surge of homeless people – especially families - seeking shelter nationally and at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles where Bales is CEO.

"We have to be creative," he says. That means converting one floor of the Mission for use only by families and buying specially-made tents that give mothers, fathers and children some privacy.

The shelter is now home to a 58-year-old man raising a son and two daughters alone. The man is on disability because of repeated heart attacks, but those checks couldn't stretch far enough to feed, clothe and house three kids. They shuttled between low-end motels and the streets before arriving at the Mission. "John," the 7-year-old boy, told Bales that what he liked most about the Mission was having "a blanket, a bed, food and being with his Dad;" and, oh yes, a shower.

Another family is led by a former administrative assistant with a two-year college degree. But when she and her husband, who has "low job skills," both lost their jobs, they also lost their home and moved with their five children into the Mission.

Bales is a non-denominational minister, and he got into working with the homeless by accident. One winter day 23 years ago, he was eating a sandwich as he worked in a parking garage ticket booth in Des Moines, Iowa. A homeless man approached and asked him for food. Bales turned him away. Recognizing that he had failed to practice the faith that he taught at a Christian school, the next time that homeless man approached, Bales bought him dinner. That day inspired him to work with the homeless, first in Des Moines for 14 years and more recently in California.

Most of the families living at the Los Angeles shelter are homeless for the first time in their lives. They're coming from everywhere around Southern California, an epicenter of the nation's mortgage meltdown and foreclosure crisis.

"These are not people who have been in the cycle of poverty," Bales tells me. They are working people who have lost jobs, who juggled expenses for food, utilities, clothing, health care and housing until they no longer could keep a roof over their heads.

As a result, the number families at the shelter is up 300 percent in a year and the number of individuals up 25 percent. The number of meals served is up 40 percent - to more than 1 million in a year.

Now he has discovered workers at the Mission who are facing foreclosure themselves, but told no one, partly out of embarrassment. The Mission's financial resources are stretched but if necessary, the staff, Bales included, will take pay cuts to avoid anyone being laid off.

Bales says the crisis is only just beginning: "I think we're not seeing it, the emergency we're having with families."

For now, he worries about the Ides of March. On March 15, the city money to pay for extra "winter shelters" outside of Mission dries up.

What happens then? Bales already is using 15 "EDARs," tents made by a group called Everyone Deserve A Roof and has 40 more on order at $500 apiece. Where will he put them? Part of the Mission's chapel is being converted to handle more families.

More than 1,700 miles away, in Wheaton, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, Darlene Marcusson is executive director at Lazarus House, where calls from people needing help with utility bills or rent and mortgage payments are up 70 percent from last year.

"We've got a whole group of "the new poor," and they don't know how to be poor because they have no practice at it," Marcusson says. "I suspect that many people are living "doubled up", which means they have moved in with friends or relatives because they no longer could pay their mortgage or rent independently. This winter has been especially cold, and I think most friends/family will not ask others to leave the home while the weather is this bad. I think when spring finally arrives we are going to have many more un-housed people, as they will have worn out their welcome and will be on the street. I sure hope I'm wrong," she says, knowing that she likely will be right.

In Denver, a combination of "church and state" aims to prevent people from slipping into the world of the homeless.

Denver's diverse religious communities walk their talk. Sure, they donate money, but they also give their time. Congregants working in groups of two to six are trained as "mentors" and spend several months working to help families get their financial houses in order and arrange educational and job opportunities. Congregations help find them rental housing and often pay the first month's rent. In exchange, the homeless put all their cards on the table: credit cards, bills, checkbook, paycheck and anything else related to their finances.

Call it economic tough love.

Affordable housing and financial help are important, "but change happens with person-to-person contact," said Brad Hopkins, who runs the Denver Rescue Mission, which oversees the program. "The big thing these families lack is healthy, supportive relationships to guide them to self-sufficiency."

Denver's program grew from "Punts with a Purpose," started in 1988 by Mike Horan, a punter for the Denver Broncos.

Four years ago Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper challenged 1,000 congregations to get 1,000 homeless families into better housing in 10 years. Hickenlooper wanted families and seniors under one umbrella and asked the mission to oversee the program, expanding beyond its Christian base into a citywide interfaith effort. The city and the mission each kicked in $200,000, plus donations from congregants.

As of January, 240 congregations have mentored more than 514 homeless families, 85 percent of whom remained in rental housing a year after completing the program. "They're kind of embarrassed to ask for help, but they know they need it and are glad that it's there," said Greta Walker of the Mission staff. She added that well after their term as "mentors" ends, many maintain friendships with the people they helped.

Several cities have used Denver's program as a model and more have expressed interest.

Kim Banks and her two sons were evicted from the motel they were living in after the landlord pocketed the rent money and the building was foreclosed. "I was so devastated. I was out looking for work constantly, daily, nobody calling. It was beyond stress. I don't know what that word is, but it was beyond stress, because how do you tell your kids?" With the Denver mission's help, they now live in a house with a back yard and a fence.

"I know what life has to offer, and I know what I can give back," Kim says. "I don't think I'd be this far if they hadn't given me that strength."

Reporter's Note:
Nationally, there was good news when the government said that the number of homeless people nationally dropped by 10 percent from 2005 to 2007, and the number of chronically homeless people living on the nation's streets had dropped about 30 percent.

Next came the recession and bad news: Homelessness went up in 19 of 25 major cities surveyed in the 12 months leading up to November 2008.

That was followed by a warning that bad will get worse. " ... 1.5 million Americans are likely to experience homelessness over the next two years, over and above the number who usually become homeless," the National Alliance to End Homelessness forecasted in January.

Another nationwide count of homeless people is under way, and it's expected to show a serious increase in the number the people seeking shelter from the storm.


Filed under: David Schechter • Economy • Unemployment
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Barbara in Boston

    We are also facing a crisis in mental health. We've already seen too many increases in suicide since the recession began. That is the tip of the iceberg as the increase in depression is largely unseen at this point but takes its toll in lower self-esteem, decreased ability to function, and increased substance abuse, to name a few.

    I work in mental health and I have seen more and more people struggling with loss of confidence, and even identity crises, as they lose jobs and homes. Out of work people can't afford COBRA so they can't get therapy and sometimes not even anti-depressants. Homeless people have a hard time keeping up activities of daily living, let alone activities of good mental health such as contact with loved ones, exercise and good nutrition. I wish I had a solution.

    I also wish there was more attention paid to this issue by the media. For example, yesterday the Pentagon announced a horrifying statistic for January: that for the first time the number of suicides of active duty personnel in a month's time was higher than the number of combat fatalities, 28 versus 20 respectively. I certainly didn't see that mentioned on CNN.

    February 6, 2009 at 8:41 pm |
  2. David Redden shepherdville ky

    Our foreclosed homes are being sold to foreign nationals for pennies on the dollar.

    It won't be long, we are all going to be homeless and starving.

    The lucky ones will be working and renting their old homes from foriegners.

    February 6, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  3. Luis

    The U.S. Oil companies are ready to provide us jobs if they, the democrats, would let us explore and drill for oil in our shores.

    California. Major deficit. Unemployment is at 9%. Taxes are up. Wont let Oil companies drill. O.k. Whatever. Just don't have us (Americans) pay your $42 billion dollar bill.

    This country is working totally backwards, it's unbelievable what i hear in the news and politicaians everyday. Unbelievable.

    February 6, 2009 at 5:35 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Wouldn't it be better to let the families that have lost their homes through foreclosure to continue living in those homes until they are sold? We have all these empty houses that no one much is buying right now and all these homeless people because they can no longer pay for their housing. The banks and mortgage companies could have some stipulations that the families have to follow but at least right now through the winter the families would be inside and warm and be able to look for a job without also having to look for a place to stay that night and where and how to get food. The banks and financial institutions with their greed helped make this mess – they should be working on relieving the hardship of it as well.

    February 6, 2009 at 5:03 pm |
  5. kevin

    They wan't to turn the economy around instantley try something like this. This was when the stimulous package was only 85 Billion. Instead of making our great grandchildren having to pay for this new one. Just take a LOOK

    Subject: The Birk Economic Recovery Plan

    I'm against the $85,000,000,000.00 bailout of AIG.

    Instead, I'm in favor of giving $85,000,000,000 to America in
    a "We Deserve it Dividend".

    To make the math simple, let's assume there are 200,000,000
    bona fide U.S. Citizens 18+.

    Our population is about 301,000,000 +/- counting every man, woman
    and child. So 200,000,000 might be a fair stab at adults 18 and up..

    So divide 200 million adults 18+ into $85 billon that equals $425,000.00.

    My plan is to give $425,000 to every person 18+ as a
    We Deserve It Dividend.

    Of course, it would NOT be tax free.
    So let's assume a tax rate of 30%.

    Every individual 18+ has to pay $127,500.00 in taxes.
    That sends $25,500,000,000 right back to Uncle Sam.

    But it means that every adult 18+ has $297,500.00 in their pocket.
    A husband and wife have $595,000.00.

    What would you do with $297,500.00 to $595,000.00 in your family?
    Pay off your mortgage – housing crisis solved.
    Repay college loans – what a great boost to new grads
    Put away money for college – it'll be there
    Save in a bank – create money to loan to entrepreneurs.
    Buy a new car – create jobs
    Invest in the market – capital drives growth
    Pay for your parent's medical insurance – health care improves
    Enable Deadbeat Dads to come clean – or else

    Remember this is for every adult U S Citizen 18+ including the folks
    who lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and every other company
    that is cutting back. and of course, for those serving in our Armed Forces.

    If we're going to re-distribute wealth let's really do it...instead of
    trickling out a puny $1000.00 ( "vote buy" ) economic incentive that is being
    proposed by one of our candidates for President.

    If we're going to do an $85 billion bailout, let's bail out every
    adult U S Citizen 18+!

    As for AIG.

    � Liquidate it.

    � Sell off its parts.

    � Let American General go back to being American General.

    � Sell off the real estate.

    � Let the private sector bargain hunters cut it up and clean it up.

    Here's my rationale. We deserve it and AIG doesn't.

    Sure it's a crazy idea that can "never work."

    But can you imagine the Coast-To-Coast Block Party!

    How do you spell Economic Boom?

    I trust my fellow adult Americans to know how to use the $85 Billion
    We Deserve It Dividend more than I do the geniuses at AIG or in Washington
    DC.

    And remember, The Birk plan only really costs $59.5 Billion because
    $25.5 Billion is returned instantly in taxes to Uncle Sam.

    Ahhh...I feel so much better getting that off my chest.

    Kindest personal regards,

    Birk

    February 6, 2009 at 4:32 pm |
  6. Dale Raymond

    I wrote a note to the President for the trird time, I hope this one will do some good.

    Dear Mr. President,
    Once again I know God has put you in this office to make change. I know that the congress and the senate are fighting to stop the change God has put on your heart. Not only are the people loosing their jobs, they are also loosing their homes and becoming homeless. We have given are tax money to lending intuitions and banks, to restructure home loans and to stop foreclosure. As president, you have the power to issue an executive order to stop all foreclosures, until those who received bail out money, restructure the way God showed you. This way it will keep people in their homes until you and congress can work out the bugs in the stimulus bill.

    Dale Raymond Yucaipa, Ca.

    February 6, 2009 at 2:40 pm |
  7. Joe G. (From Illinois)

    If you gave them a choice of one for the other: Choice A (Food, house, job, financial prosperity and all them others good stuff) for Choice B (A surgical scalp to go chase down innocent children still in the womb so has to commit abortion.) Which one do you think they will choose? I’ll say that we might as well make a lesson out of all this mess. Sensibility factors can be pathological..!

    February 6, 2009 at 2:28 pm |
  8. earle,florida

    I'm lost for words,Mr Schechter. The individuals you've mentioned,Rev Bales,Ms Marcusson,and Mr Hopkins/Mr Horan are strong believers in "Humanity"! But what has set them apart from their contempory's is the, "Discovery of Selflessness"! While those in Washington feast on their,"Pound of Carrion", their constituents morphe into an aberation of expenables! Savagely flushed thru"Society's Sewer's", labelled ,"The Forsakened"! Thanks, Wonderful Article(:

    February 6, 2009 at 2:24 pm |
  9. Isabel Abreu, Brazil

    The shelters public are transitional solutions: attempts to avoid destitution of the family. But that is what the Government has to bear in mind: the shelter is a 'temporary' and exceptional solution. He should not be permanent residence of the citizen.

    This point should be taken into account in all measures of a stimulus package.
    He is a very serious consequence of unemployment.

    February 6, 2009 at 12:47 pm |
  10. jarrod

    they havn't even unfolded this crisis of homelessness when unemployment runs out the people tthat have reletives and friends living with them thier all going to have leave at the same time I have family that live in minnisota that have to be out come sunday i doubt they will be able to live under a porch or bridge there.......Why havn't any mention of these BANKS that are sitting on these houses not offering them to charity organizations for a tax write-off also why bail out a housing industry that massed produced homes took jobs from local builders that don't have the capital to weather this economical storm. ALL these homes that are sitting empty in frozen parts of the US water pipes and sewer lines busting making a likely bad situation worse talk about a waste of natural resources I don't like government regulations but if we pull through this they need to stop all this mass production by limited amount of large construction companies

    February 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm |
  11. Barbara Artis

    This is the only place I find to leave my comments. :-) Anyway, Mr. Cooper I applaud you for doing a good job yourself giving the President his proper title. I only heard you make one mistake yesterday. However, when you had comments from the three men: Gergen, John King & Jo John's, they continually called him Obama or Barack Obama. I find that so annoying. Is there anyway that you could politely remind them that is is not just Obama or Barack Obama but.... President Obama? If this is not corrected now, it will go on the entire time that he is the President because people will make it a creature of habit if you will.
    Thanks,
    Barbara

    February 6, 2009 at 10:07 am |
  12. Jennifer Bixler

    I think you all need to listen to John Rich's "Shuttin Detriot Down" and have him on the show.....

    February 6, 2009 at 9:59 am |