At last November’s Republican presidential debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, activists trying to draw attention to the city’s homeless problem were discreetly corralled away from the candidates by a perimetre fence.
“They (St. Petersburg officials) were trying to keep us protestors away by creating a ‘free-speech zone’, which is an oxymoron if you think about it,” said Southern Baptist Reverend Bruce Wright, who has worked with the homeless of St. Petersburg for more than 20 years. “We ended up negotiating to protest across the street (from the Mahaffey Theatre, site of the debate).”
Not one of the Republican hopefuls, nor the host of the event, uttered one word during the debate about the protest which was going on outside the theatre. Nor was it mentioned that homeless people in St. Petersburg, who often gather around the Mahaffey Theatre, were systematically shooed away from the television cameras covering the event by the St. Petersburg Police Department.
According to the latest available statistics from 2005, there are 5,200 homeless people in Pinellas County, the political seat of St. Petersburg, “and 50 percent of them are here in the city limits,” said Wright. “And that’s not including the homeless people who weren’t included in the study.”
Across the United States, the number of homeless people has been rising in recent years, say specialists who work in the field.
According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency shelter in 270 U.S. cities increased 25 percent in 2005. More than a fifth of those seeking help were turned away.
IPS spoke with a number of groups that work with the homeless in five U.S. metropolitan areas — St. Petersburg, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Seattle, Washington; New York City, and the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia. All reported that they have seen an increase in the number of homeless people in their respective areas.
According to an August 2007 fact sheet from the National Coalition for the Homeless, “In early 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported a point-in-time estimate [that] 744,313 people experienced homelessness in January, 2005.” Due to ever-shifting methodology in trying to count the homeless, “homelessness is impossible to measure with 100 percent accuracy,” stated the fact-sheet.
It’s not just the Republican presidential candidates who haven’t addressed the issue. At a recent Cable News Network-moderated debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Los Angeles, no one mentioned the fact that Los Angeles County has the largest number of people living on the streets, at least 73,000, out of any major metropolitan U.S. area.
“It’s hard to say what our exact precise numbers are, as it’s difficult to get an accurate and precise count,” said David Howden, funding director for the Los Angeles Homeless Services.
Dr. Tanya Tull, CEO and president of the Los Angeles organisation Beyond Shelter, explained that “our focus is on how to get them back into permanent housing, rather than keeping people in homeless shelters. Then we spend up to a year with them after we get them into housing, making sure that drug addicts stay off of drugs and also helping in the process to help them find employment.”
There are many factors driving homelessness in the United States — the current looming recession and housing crisis; alcohol and/or drug addiction; mental health problems; a scarcity of decent jobs.
Northward, in Seattle, Timothy Harris, executive director of Seattle Real Change Homeless Speakers Bureau, noted that “last year there was a four percent decrease in the number of homeless people. But this year, our One Night Count (an annual event in which volunteers do a count of homeless people during evening hours) found that there was a 15-percent increase of the homeless.”
However, all is not bleak in the Emerald City, according to Harris: “There was a tenth of a cent tax increase here in King County (political seat of Seattle) this year, which is expected to raise 55 million dollars, which will be used for the construction of alcohol and drug centres, and also mental health centres.”
Those who have lost their homes come from all walks of life, and are increasingly including military veterans, families with children and women who are domestic violence victims.
Ralph Nunez, president of the New York City-based organisation Homes for the Homeless, was adamant that “this isn’t a homeless issue, it’s a poverty issue”.
Then he provided some statistics: “On any given night in New York City, there are 9,000 families and 15,000 children in homeless shelters and that’s just the capacity; there’s no telling how many more families and children are out there that we don’t know about. For us, on any given night, 630 families and 2,000 children are in our care.”
“This is all a part of deregulation,” he noted. “Welfare public assistance was cut back due to deregulation. (Then U.S. President Ronald) Reagan began this back in the early 1980s.”
In the nation’s capital, the number of homeless people doubled between 1980 and 1990. “Homelessness is all of poverty converged in its most extreme form,” explained Maria Foscarinis, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty. “This is all part of a continuum. The underlining issues are lack of housing [and] adequate health care, hunger and domestic violence.”
Foscarinis described her organisation as “the legal arm to end homelessness in this country. When necessary we will litigate — we will go to court on such issues as allowing children of homeless people to enroll in public schools. Many school boards don’t allow such children in their schools because they don’t have the required documentation, like a birth certificate, to do so. In 2005, in New York City, we went to court on this issue and won it.”
Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., said that “more people are seeking help from us now, and that was before the recession. President [George W.] Bush and some of the mayors of the bigger cities are trying to say that their public assistance programmes are working, but they’re just putting the best possible face on the issue.”
“The visible homeless are being pushed out of their sight. It’s impossible to find out how many (homeless people) there are, how many have died in one year, how many live in motels, and how many live in national parks,” he said. IPS – Inter Press Service