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."
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.