WASHINGTON, DC // Across the nation's capital this Christmas there were no vacancies at family homeless shelters, only waiting lists. Even as many sectors of the economy recover from the financial crisis, the number of homeless families across the country has continued to rise. The winter season, always a tough time for America's most vulnerable population, has proven particularly difficult for struggling families.
"Someone leaves and someone enters immediately. We always have a waiting list," said Kamala Miller, the executive director of Hannah House, a 30-year-old transitional homeless shelter for women and their children in north-west Washington. According to Ms Miller, the last eight months have been especially bad. "If the job market doesn't bounce back, I fear for what the statistics are gonna look like in DC," she said, as the residents of the house prepared for a Christmas dinner party sponsored by a local church.
The US department of housing and urban development said there had been a nine per cent increase in family homelessness in 2008, although when it released the report, the department's secretary noted that the figure did not reflect the "full brunt of the economic and homeless crisis we have been through". Another report issued by the US Conference of Mayors earlier this year showed that 76 per cent of cities studied reported an increase in family homelessness.
In Washington DC, which has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, the increase was estimated to be as high as 25 per cent, according to sources in the social services. About 6,000 people are considered homeless in DC, including 703 families and there are nowhere near enough beds for them all. At Hannah House, residents were well aware that they were lucky to have a roof over their heads.
"Everyone here's been wonderful. It seems like I'm with family. Everything's going well. I'm happy. Content. It's nothing like I had before but I'm happy," said Sabrina, a young-faced grandmother of two, who has lupus. Sabrina has been out of work since 2008 and looks after her two grandchildren, Shaquira, six, and Shakayla, three, while her daughter is in a drug rehabilitation centre. She moved into Hannah House about a month ago after the friend she was staying with asked her to move out because her sister was coming to live with her.
"I am homeless because I lost my job. With me not getting my disability right away you know that plays a part as well," she said. In the wake of the financial crisis, families like Sabrina's and others at the shelter are beginning to redefine the notion of the urban homeless - many of whom do not have the security which Hannah House provides. The perception of homelessness in American cities has long been paired with mental health issues and drug addiction, but with economic hard times and record family home foreclosures, that image is changing.
"Now we're seeing people who are not the traditional look of homelessness, these are families who really just can't make ends meet. It helps if they don't have to buy food everyday - they've been sleeping on family couches for the last month just trying to save up enough to get an apartment," said Alicia Horton, the executive director of Thrive DC. "These are hard-working, generally healthy - emotionally and mentally - people who just have fallen on bad times," she said.
Thrive DC, a non-profit organisation that operates out of St Stephen's church in the north-west of the city, offers among other services two meals a day: breakfast for men, women and children and dinner for women and their children. Ms Horton noted that for many in need, particularly those who recently lost work or housing, reaching out for help could be embarrassing. "They're realising their situation and importance in our community in a whole different way because they have crossed in to a different social strata and it's a hard place to be," she said.
"It can be incredibly difficult. It's humbling to have to ask for help, to have to ask to for a place to shower." Thrive DC's Christmas Eve breakfast was attended by a large and diverse crowd of about 50, an increase, Ms Horton said, on last year. Holiday decorations hung from the pillars of the church basement and the hungry and homeless cheered when Ms Horton announced that meals would be served on Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Some shouted, "Merry Christmas," others, "Feliz Navidad."
However, beneath the Christmas cheer was a considerable amount of frustration. Several homeless men expressed anger over what they considered to be the government's lacklustre attempts to spur job growth. Eric Sheptock, who has lived in shelters for years and blogs regularly about the plight of the city's homeless, noted that there are different stages of homelessness. "Most people who are made homeless by the [financial] crisis don't go straight to the shelter. They go couchsurfing," he said.
And when they finally made the move into shelter, the afternoon check-in times made it difficult to apply for and work regular jobs. "You have to choose between working and getting a bed," said Mr Sheptock. One of his friends, who declined to give his name, also lamented the difficulties of the job search. "The job situation is terrible - The homeless are fed up; we want to go to work," he said. The swelling population of homeless families and the challenging job market have been further aggravated by cuts in funding for organisations that serve the hungry and homeless.
Ms Miller of Hannah House warned that the cuts could lead to shelters shutting down at a time when more beds were needed. "We've seen some significant cuts from our District of Columbia budgeting, to the tune of about 33 per cent this upcoming year. It is really hitting very hard," she said. "A lot of programmes are suffering. Several shelters have had to shut down and we've been getting their calls."
Ms Horton said Thrive had also seen about 30 per cent of its funding cut. "Who ultimately feels it is not the organisation but the clients who are served by the organisation," she said. * The National