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A NEW GENERATION OF HOMELESS AMERICANS

First of two parts

"Brian! Brian! Brian!"

Someone had opened the locked door separating a St. Petersburg homeless shelter from the world outside, and Brian Bradford was escaping. He left using the only means of transportation he had mastered. He crawled.

Brian, 23 months, crawled out the door and into the night. He crawled onto the concrete steps leading to a downtown sidewalk, ignoring the calls of the woman who saw him go. He crawled until she ran out and scooped him up and brought him back, an affectionate little boy with chubby cheeks and curly blond hair.

He would not explore the world outside this day.

When he does, what sort of life will it offer him?

After four normal births, Pamela Bradford had trouble with Brian. He was born two months early, a 3-pound baby with a faulty heart valve and other medical problems that kept him in an intensive care ward for two months.

He will be 2 next week. Much of his second year passed in the locked lobby of a homeless shelter, where he sat on the floor and sucked a milk bottle while children played around him, or with four siblings in a tiny apartment without a bedroom. He doesn't talk much. Last month he stood up and took his first steps.

He is classified as temporarily disabled, and because of that, his mother receives a small monthly Social Security check for his care. She hopes he will be a normal toddler soon. His heart is improving, and doctors have told her he should walk once he has an operation for an ear infection. She can't help worrying, though, what will happen to her family when those Social Security checks are gone _ income she needed to get her children out of this shelter.

"That's our rent money right there," she said sadly, looking at her youngest child. When it's gone, "we'll be doing bad. Really bad."

Brian is one of hundreds, perhaps a thousand, children who were homeless in the Tampa Bay area last month. All of them belong to the fastest-growing group of homeless people in America: families.

The usual image of homelessness, of a grizzled single man crippled by a chronic mental illness or alcoholism, is at most half true today. From the "boom" years of the Reagan presidency into the current recession, the newcomers to an expanding system of homeless shelters have been families who couldn't pay the rent.

In Pinellas County, a survey last winter found 232 children in homeless shelters, 50 percent more than the previous winter. Hillsborough County's homeless coalition estimates there are 1,800 homeless people living inside or outside its shelter system, and that nearly half are family members. In Florida, the number of homeless children and parents has tripled in six years to about 12,000, according to the state's rough estimates. In America, according to the Children's Defense Fund, at least 100,000 children are homeless each night.

Ellen Bassuk, a Harvard psychiatry professor who has spent a decade studying the causes of homelessness in America, once faulted the national policy of emptying mental hospitals, writing in 1984 that "a large majority of the homeless suffer from mental illness . . ."

Today she sees a new population of homeless Americans.

"The one thing that's different now is the presence of families," she said.

Starting in the early 1980s, Bassuk began to notice what she calls the feminization of homelessness. She found there were more women, particularly single mothers with small children, in emergency shelters. She saw that even very small children could suffer physically and emotionally from homelessness _ losing weight, turning listless, refusing to talk or eat, sleeping poorly, becoming chronically sick _ and that older children in shelters commonly missed school, repeated grades or scored poorly on math and reading tests. Beginning in 1985, she and other researchers reported that children in homeless shelters, compared to poor children who had homes, were slow to develop verbal, physical and social skills.

Seven years later, she is pessimistic about the future of America's children.

The United States is now the only industrialized country where the largest group of people living in poverty are children, she said. "I can't really see how there's going to be a letup. It seems that we're going to see an increase of families on the streets for the next few years. It's appalling. It's everywhere _ rural areas, big cities, little cities _ and it's filled with families, young children."

The factors that various studies have identified as causes of homelessness are as various and complex as the social problems of contemporary American life. Teen pregnancies have increased. Cocaine dependence has increased. More people are out of work. More mothers are unmarried or divorced. Homeless mothers have been victims of spouse abuse, and of sexual abuse as children. In a transient society, the protective umbrella of the extended family has diminished.

Fundamentally, though, a growing number of families are homeless because they can't afford housing. And because political leaders have treated their plight with hypocrisy and neglect.

More children are homeless today because in cities such as St. Petersburg, the old supply of low-cost housing has been abandoned, torched, gentrified or demolished in the name of urban renewal, leaving federal housing as virtually the only housing poor families can afford. They are homeless because Presidents Reagan and Bush turned their backs as the poor got poorer and cheap housing got scarcer, preferring to commend the churches and charities that opened shelters to keep families off the streets. They are homeless because Congress passed laws promising low-income housing, then approved budgets that let eligible families wait years for an apartment.

They are homeless because some federally funded housing authorities, citing a lack of funds, stopped taking applications years ago. They are homeless because the very agencies established to provide low-income housing are using emergency shelters as places to dump applicants they can't help. Dean Robinson, executive director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, estimates his office refers five or six families a day to emergency shelters.

In Florida, children are homeless because the state adopted a program to keep families out of emergency shelters, then allocated just enough money to help only those families who happen to become homeless in the first two months of each year. This year the allocation has been smaller. So far, the state has not put one penny into the only direct aid program it has for homeless families.

Today, some families counted as homeless in shelter surveys actually pay a higher rent than they would in federal housing programs, which charge 30 percent of a family's income.

In response to a national shortage of low-income housing, nonprofit groups have created "transitional" shelters. These shelters allow families to stay as long as a year, and some charge fixed rates as high as $250 a month for lodging. At the Stepping Stone transitional shelter in Clearwater, for one, the rent is more than 30 percent of a family's income "in many cases," said Michael Lyles, its program counselor.

If federally subsidized apartments "were more available, we wouldn't be required at all," he said.

"I would like people to know

that this could happen to them"

Connie and Danny Taylor are at the Ozanam Inn in downtown St. Petersburg with four of their children even though both are employed _ she as a hairdresser, he as a night security guard. They lost their apartment in August, after he lost a previous job.

"I would like people to know that this could happen to them. I have worked since I was 16, and I'll be 40 this year," she said.

It happened to Pamela Bradford, who came to the Ozanam Inn eight months ago with Brian and Lorrie, a 4-year-old girl, and three school-aged children who were not told that this place is considered a homeless shelter. "They just think it's a really small apartment. It's bad enough they know I'm on food stamps," she said.

Homelessness has taken its toll on her children. For seven months, they were squeezed together in an apartment with one bed, a couch, a pile of blankets to sleep on each night. It meant never being alone, staying in a locked complex no friends could visit, having nowhere to play but a common lobby. All the children had a winter of illnesses, she said. Her oldest daughter, who wants to be a teacher, has missed a year of school as her family moved from place to place. Her 5-year-old is very bright, she said, but he can't sit still. Lorrie clutched her a lot and told her how much she loved her.

She brought her children from Georgia without her husband, Joe, who has rejoined the family and found a day labor job. With his income, and the Social Security money she gets because the father of her oldest two children is disabled, and Brian's disability income, and assistance with utility deposits, they were able to rent a house this month.

Friday afternoon found the Bradford children romping around the back yard of their new home, laughing and tossing a spongy football around while their parents cooked ribs on the grill _ and not looking the least bit homeless. The children have rooms to decorate now, their parents a place to send them for misbehaving besides the bathroom.

"The kids love it," their father said. "It was really hard on them, living together in one room."

For the four children of 20-year-old Sandra Long, shelter life goes on. Her youngest, 8-month-old Montreze, is healthy but small, so small that people often ask her if he was a preemie. Her other three children sometimes play in a downtown alley behind the shelter. In the lobby, older kids "just pick on 'em. They scream their lungs out. I say no way," she said.

During school hours her children sometimes have the lobby to themselves. Those days they may be seen throwing a big red ball or pushing each other on a bicycle, or standing silently by the shelter entrance, staring through the iron grillwork at the city outside.

The Ozanam Inn, one of a growing number of transitional shelters, lets homeless families to stay up to six months and expects them to pay 30 percent of their income (up to $45 a week) as rent, the same percentage that tenants pay in federally subsidized housing. Family shelters, unlike federal housing agencies, are not required to provide either an adequate number of bedrooms or beds, however.

Federal assistance:

the impossible dream

Nearly all federally subsidized housing for families is in public housing projects or in Section 8 housing, which lets low-income families rent privately owned apartments. Both programs charge tenants 30 percent of their adjusted income; in Section 8 housing, the federal government pays the balance to the landlord.

As the government stopped building public housing projects, as existing projects deteriorated and as crack dealers and gunfights overtook some of them, the demand for Section 8 housing has grown.

Yet housing authority directors say they have received little or no money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in recent years to accommodate this growth. Instead they have amassed long waiting lists. In the Tampa Bay area, several housing authorities have stopped taking Section 8 applications altogether _ even from homeless families, who qualify for federal preference when apartments are available.

The Pinellas County Housing Authority has a list of 1,177 families waiting for Section 8 apartments, and its waiting lists are closed. It did take applications for two-bedroom apartments in January, but closed the list after 600 families applied in four weeks.

The Clearwater Housing Authority has 788 families on its waiting list and is taking applications only from people who qualify for federal preference because they're homeless, spending more than half their income for rent or inhabiting a substandard apartment. "Even if you qualify for a preference you can be on a waiting list with my authority for a year to 18 months," said Deborah Vincent, the agency director.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority, an agency clouded by federal investigations, has not received money for additional Section 8 apartments since 1986, according to agency spokeswoman Helen Harris. It has 636 families on a closed waiting list. Except for one-bedroom apartments, its waiting list for public housing is closed as well.

Mothers with children come in every day asking for immediate housing, "and there's no immediate housing. There's no housing next week either," Harris said. If a family comes in when a waiting list "happens to be open and the application is taken, it could be six months to a year."

The Hernando County Housing Authority has 220 families in its Section 8 program and 350 families on the waiting list. Citrus County has a hundred families waiting for a new 39-apartment Section 8 program; all but 10 have been reserved for homeless families. Pasco County has 252 families on its waiting list.

The Tampa Housing Authority, which has an abundance of public housing, has space available in its projects for homeless families. It also has many families in its projects who want to get out and into Section 8 housing, which now has a waiting list of 3,331 applicants.

As waiting lists for low-income housing have grown, so has the list of shelters serving people who have no home. Today there are more than 70 shelter programs in the Tampa Bay area _ shelters for families, for runaways, for single men, for single women, for drug rehabilitation clients, for people with chronic mental illnesses, for women fleeing abusive relationships. There are 14 emergency and transitional shelters serving homeless families in Pinellas County alone.

And what has the state of Florida done while the number of homeless families has increased?

It has passed laws that make it more costly for poor families to move to Florida. Notably, the state now requires any new resident to pay almost $500 in fees to register a car, regardless of its value. One unfortunate consequence of this law, according to shelter directors, is that poor families abandon their cars instead, and then lack transportation when they try to find jobs.

It has passed a growth management law that requires cities and counties to provide affordable housing as part of their comprehensive development plans. But in a recent survey, only 15 percent of the cities and 18 percent of the counties said their plans met this requirement.

It has adopted one program that provides direct assistance to homeless families. The program offers a one-time rent payment of $400 during a calendar year to families with children who are homeless or facing immediate eviction. But in the last two years, the money allocated to the program lasted only about two months.

This year, in response to a state fiscal crisis, the program was cut in half. Then its program manager, Ray Smith, was instructed to spend no money. "I was told that it probably would be eliminated for this fiscal year," he said.

Tom Arnold, assistant secretary for economic services at Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said the state's homelessness prevention program has not been canceled. It has been put on hold, pending further budget cuts from the Legislature, he said, because "we didn't want to spend the money if they were going to cut it."

"I try to be

as honest as I can"

The journey toward homelessness begins in many different ways. For 8-year-old John, it started the day his father grabbed his mother during a fight at Fort DeSoto Park and hoisted her off the ground by her necklace.

His mother, too distraught to work, went to a mental hospital for treatment, then took John and his 2-year-old sister to a spouse abuse shelter. She lives with the children now in a transitional shelter, where she is taking word-processor courses and trying to get a divorce.

"My son was pretty devastated in the beginning," she said. "It hurt him so much. He thought I was never coming back."

John, who was roller skating outside the shelter, seemed remarkably cheerful for a boy who had moved from a three-bedroom house to homeless shelters, lost his dog to the pound, and been enrolled in three schools in five months.

He said he missed his old school, because his cousin goes there and his teacher gave him good grades. But he has made new friends and likes his mother's apartment, he said, and she told him he might get another dog. His father? "I miss him a little, but he lies to me."

Next door was a man who said he had gotten into some trouble and spent time in prison, drifted for a couple of years, then came to reclaim his daughters after their mother drank herself crazy. Now he is studying to be a welder, hoping to straighten out his life and imagining what it would like to earn $1,400 a week working on nuclear pipes.

One daughter asks a lot of questions about their circumstances. Do people who are married live here? Why did mother start drinking again? "I try to be as honest as I can," he said. His other daughter "is withdrawn. She doesn't understand what's going on."

Kathy Ferrari, a 30-year-old single mother, said she left her job as a lunch-shift waitress last summer after she became pregnant, "and I started to get to the point where I was really dragged down."

During her pregnancy, she and her two children sometimes stayed overnight with friends and sometimes with her parents, who rent a townhouse limited by lease to four occupants. "I didn't want them to get kicked out because of me and my kids," she said, so she put her name on a waiting list for public housing and moved into an emergency shelter in St. Petersburg.

The shelter, run by Advocates for Shelter Action Policy, is a free but crowded house, and some of the children were sick. So was her 2-week-old baby, Trina. "At night when she's sleeping you can hear it," she said. "She's got a stuffed-up nose."

In another shelter, a mother explains she once spent her money on crack cocaine instead of on her daughters. "There were times when we went without food, or had the utilities turned off," she said, and a birthday when her daughter didn't get a present.

Later she bought cocaine as a confidential informant, helping police bust local dealers and earning a few dollars for her work. Now she has a night job as a switchboard operator, handling wake-up calls and calls to sex talk lines. She is waiting for a Section 8 apartment.

"We won't go to a housing project under any circumstances," she said, because she is afraid to go near the drug trade and afraid to have her daughters near it.

She said she stopped using cocaine without anyone else's help, but only after she called the local drug treatment programs and found they had waiting lists, or wouldn't take a mother with children, or wanted money first. She recalled one hospital telling her, " "We only need a $2,000 deposit for the first month. You can start next week.' "

She has no car, some furniture she left in her last apartment because she couldn't pay to store it, a job that pays about $150 a week _ and two daughters. The older one, who is mentally retarded and prone to seizures, is cooing happily. Her 10-year-old sister is worrying about transferring to another new school.

Before, "when it was time to go to another school, I'd panic, because I'd be afraid I wouldn't have enough things," the 10-year-old said. This time she hopes to make a little money first, maybe by raking up some leaves, "so I don't have to borrow school supplies."

A bed for the night

or a home for a year

As homeless shelters have spread across the urban landscape, the definitions of "homeless" and "shelter" have broadened as well.

Nationally, being homeless can mean anything from sleeping in a subway tunnel or a human warehouse in Manhattan to participating in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation programs. These programs, offered in nine major U.S. cities, provide case managers to help families get permanent housing, medical care and job training.

Locally, a homeless shelter can be a bed for the night or a home for a year. It can mean having a bunk bed, a mobile home or a two-bedroom apartment. It may be free. It may cost $60 a week. To some families, the homes in a homeless compound look nicer and safer than public housing. Some wouldn't trade their homeless shelter for a unit in the projects.

"I'd go sleep in my car with my kids first," said Johnny Davis, a single father who works at a restaurant and lives with his two teen-agers in a mobile home provided by the Everybody's Tabernacle program in Clearwater.

Donna Foote, the manager of a Stepping Stone program, relies on the support of 70 Pinellas County churches to run an emergency shelter of mobile homes for families. She said it commonly takes in parents who have minimum-wage jobs and lose their housing because of a large unplanned expense, such as a medical bill or car repairs.

"They're not being paid wages that are livable, and a lot of these people just don't have a security net," she said.

She sometimes wonders if the shelters serve to conceal other issues _ substandard wages, a shrinking supply of low-cost housing, the lack of treatment for people who are mentally ill but functional.

They provide "a Band-Aid," she said, "that keeps people from bleeding all over so nobody sees this."

In return they get political commendations. For its efforts to shelter homeless people, President Bush cited the Stepping Stone program as one of his thousand points of light.

Where is the commitment

to reverse the trend?

Here are some statistics that help explain how the number of homeless families in Florida could have tripled in six years.

In 1989 dollars, the number of apartments renting for $250 or less declined by 1.3-million between 1970 and 1989, while the number of renters with incomes below $10,000 increased by 3-million, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Between 1960 and 1989, the portion of American families headed by single women with children more than doubled, from 10 percent to 22 percent. These families are five times as likely to be impoverished as two-parent families, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

Federal expenditures for low-income housing peaked in 1985, while federal tax benefits for homeowners doubled during the ensuing five years, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

In Florida, the maximum welfare payment to a mother with two children grew 50 percent from 1980 through 1991 _ to $294 a month _ while the general cost of living grew 80 percent.

A typical one-bedroom apartment in a Florida city rented for $400 last year _ about 135 percent of the maximum welfare payment to a family of three. The same apartment would take more than half the income of a person working full-time at $4.25 an hour.

In 1979, a single mother with two children could escape poverty by being fully employed at the federal minimum wage. Today, her income would fall 20 percent short of the poverty line.

These changes have taken place without any acknowledgement from the White House that federal policies could be a cause of homelessness.

Unlike his predecessor, who once espoused the notion that people are homeless by choice, President Bush has provided significant federal support for programs that help homeless families get adequate shelter, job training and health care.

Yet those who have studied the growth of homelessness say Bush's economic policies _ which kept welfare payments and minimum wages down while federal housing programs stopped taking applications _ have driven more people into those shelters and onto the streets.

"They seem to live in his back yard, but I don't think he's looked out his window," said Barbara Cohen, an Urban Institute research associate.

As the trend toward increased homelessness has persisted into its second decade, researchers have pointed at causes ranging from the unavailability of day care for poor working parents to the absence of drug treatment programs for mothers who want to keep their children. The cause they have cited over and over, however, is the cost of housing.

The commitment needed to reverse the trend "is fairly simple," said Lisa Klee Mihaly, the author of the Children's Defense Fund report on homeless families.

"I think we would have to commit to insuring that all families who need it get help with their housing costs. To make sure that families had adequate income. And to have a support system in place so that families who experienced a crisis could be helped before they became homeless."

But who would make such a commitment?

President Bush, whose housing department insists the federal government can never hope to meet the demand from poor families who seek rental assistance?

His Democratic challengers, whose campaigns to recapture the middle class have largely ignored the problems of the poor, who are unlikely to vote anyway?

The state of Florida, whose crisis intervention program vanished in a budget crisis?

We the people? There is a widespread suspicion that we've heard enough about the homeless.

"Unfortunately," Barbara Cohen said, "we're not seeing a mood swing to help homeless get out of homelessness."

"I've done all I can.

Look where I am."

For most families, homelessness doesn't happen overnight. The emergency shelter typically is the end of the homeless process, the place families go after they have moved from one brief home to another, staying with relatives, staying with friends, leaving possessions as well as unpaid bills behind.

For the children, the consequences of homelessness don't disappear overnight either. Being homeless lowers an infant's chances of survival. Homeless children are more likely to have chronic diarrhea, asthma and elevated levels of lead in their blood. They are less likely to be immunized against diseases or have a nutritionally sound diet.

Then there are the psychological effects.

Chris Roberts, a Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health counselor who works with homeless families, sees few adults who have chronic mental illnesses. Usually they are referred "for what we call an adjustment disorder," she said. "It's more like the final, last straw. "I've done all I can. Look where I am.' We see depression. Lots and lots of depression."

Among homeless children, "we get a lot of delayed development, because they're not exposed to things that housed children are exposed to," she said. "Mom doesn't sit down and read to them. Mom doesn't get out the coloring books and sing the songs. Mom's too busy keeping things together."

She introduces one of her current clients, a woman who says her middle name is Ann.

Ann is 42 years old. She is conservatively dressed, in a gray suit, black blouse and an ivory-colored pendant. She speaks slowly, sadly. "I was in a severely abusive relationship," she says.

She describes how she fled a mobile home in Hardee County, taking four children with her, and arranged with the sheriff's department to gather their belongings later. How they came to St. Petersburg and the YWCA emergency shelter, where they slept together on bunk beds in a single room, where each family was issued a roll of toilet paper and you had to carry your roll back and forth. How her children blamed her for their poverty, telling her, "Ma, you did this to us."

How they rented an apartment for $350 plus utilities while they waited for public housing in Pinellas County, and learned to live with bugs and leaky plumbing and a faulty heating system that blew out the electric circuits. How her children took part-time jobs after school to help with the bills.

Today, one of her sons is doing fine in school. The other two aren't, and one has run away from home. Her 18-year-old daughter has a baby. A gorgeous, 5-month-old baby boy, she says, and "he is so bright, it's frightening."

She has no car, and no telephone. She plans to go back to school, maybe to study data processing. She has been severely depressed for a year, she says.

She talks about the flute she couldn't buy her daughter, because there was no money for it. And the clothes that went with playing in the band, because there was no money for them. And the baseball equipment she couldn't buy her sons, because there was no money. "All these things add up, and the kids resent it," she says.

She talks about how talented her daughter was, how wonderfully her daughter could play a flute, or a saxophone. She cries softly, and reaches for a small box of tissues beside her.

"I watched a beautiful, gifted daughter give up music," she says.

She also watched her daughter drop out of school, and get a job, and have a baby. "Oh, she has gone back and gotten her G.E.D.," she whispers, "but it's not the same. It's not the same . . ."

NEXT WEEK:

Promises vs. realities at a local shelter.

David Olinger is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times.

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