One of the less reported consequences of the financial meltdown is the impact of housing foreclosures on those who live on the very edges of the economy. As owners of multiple dwellings walk away from their properties and hand over ownership to the banks, what they leave behind are poor people with no place to go. The result is a glaring spike in homelessness, just at the beginning of the cold season in many parts of this country.
In my state of Massachusetts data from the Department of Transitional Assistance shows that the numbers of individuals and families are increasing dramatically with no expectation that this crisis will abate. What is even more disturbing is that for the last few years both the Federal Government and individual states have been making some visible progress in taking people off the streets and into permanent housing. To its credit the Bush administration has aggressively addressed the homelessness issue with the formation of the Interagency Council on Homelessness led by one of the most outspoken advocates for the poor, Philip Mangano. Many states have followed suit with new programs to build housing complexes and even stand alone homes that provide individuals and families with the safety, security and dignity that goes with having a roof over one’s head.
But all of that hard work by the government, public and private money, and rising hopes for a better life are in real jeopardy of being destroyed as rental properties are taken off the market and the newly homeless come knocking at the door of underfunded shelters. With giving by generous Americans certain to fall off in the coming months and years and the foreclusre crisis far from over, the dream of ending homelessness is becoming a pipe dream.
It is important to point out that too often Americans view the homeless as those staggering, ragtag panhandlers that populate the streets of major urban centers. While the homeless population does include these types ( many of whom suffer from serious mental and physical disabilities, and of course alcohol and drug abuse), the largest group of homeless are the one parent families, usually a single mother whose husband has abandoned them, leaving her with the children he has fathered. In many respects the face of homelessness in America is a young child with not much of a future.
No one should be homeless in a country as rich as the United States, even though these are dark days. But for those Americans with no home and no certainty about permanent housing, the days are even darker. Sadly, because the homeless live on the margins and receive scant public attention or sympathy, the prospect of a major public or private response to this crisis is slim. What should be viewed as a desperate situation that brings anger and action in our country of plenty will just generate a collective apathetic shrug.