Mark Sinnen, who has been a mail carrier for 30 years, says it's "disheartening" to see some of his customers lose their homes.
Mark Sinnen, who has been a mail carrier for 30 years, says it's "disheartening" to see some of his customers lose their homes. David Greene/NPR
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Sinnen, 52, says the signs of the recession are obvious along his delivery route in Bradenton, Fla.
Sinnen, 52, says the signs of the recession are obvious along his delivery route in Bradenton, Fla. David Greene/NPR
Martha Childress is the coordinator of Open Door, a day center for homeless people where Sinnen delivers mail. She says, "Oh, honey child, he brings me piles and piles of mail, and he's got people in the parking lot saying, 'Got my mail?' "
Martha Childress is the coordinator of Open Door, a day center for homeless people where Sinnen delivers mail. She says, "Oh, honey child, he brings me piles and piles of mail, and he's got people in the parking lot saying, 'Got my mail?' " David Greene/NPR
Gary Buchanan drove to Florida to look for work after he was laid off from his job in Alabama and couldn't pay the rent anymore. Now he's applying for jobs and living in his van in Bradenton.
Gary Buchanan drove to Florida to look for work after he was laid off from his job in Alabama and couldn't pay the rent anymore. Now he's applying for jobs and living in his van in Bradenton. David Greene/NPR
All along Interstate 75, from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the south coast of Florida, people who are strangers are having a common experience: dealing with the economic downturn. A mail carrier in Bradenton, Fla., says the effects of that shared experience are obvious along his delivery route, where familiar faces are disappearing.
Mark Sinnen has been a letter carrier for 30 years, and he loves his job. The U.S. Postal Service emblem is tattooed on his upper thigh.
"My post office eagle — it's the national emblem of the Postal Service," he said. "We fly like an eagle. I've been doing it so long, I commemorated it with a little tattoo on my leg."
The 51-year-old said delivering the mail can be a dirty job.
"You might get your mail in pristine condition," he said, "but that's because most of the dust and dirt has come off on your letter carrier."
Now, it's getting to be a lonely job, too, he said.
Neighborhoods Altered By The Crisis
For someone who has a routine and meets the same people each day, changes don't go unnoticed.
"Every now and then, you'll see the father of the family you never used to see," Sinnen said. "He's at home, in a foul mood, when I come up to grab the mail — not been able to find a job."
Fewer people are saying hello, he said.
Sinnen has felt the housing crisis — in his hands, carrying the foreclosure notices.
"It was disheartening," he said. "You'd carry the mail to these folks and then see them put out of their homes and on the street. A lot of them don't have a place to forward their mail to."
He brings some of their mail to a place called Open Door, a day center for homeless people.
Of course, not everyone who loses a home ends up on the street. But Sinnen said he has seen families in their house one day and seeking shelter the next.
A Flood of Aid Seekers
Like Sinnen, Open Door's coordinator Martha Childress has seen the recession up close. Like food pantries and shelters around the country, Open Door is seeing bigger crowds. Childress says she's getting four times the number of visits compared with this time last year.
"We're seeing a much better class of homeless person now," she said. "And I see people that [say] this to me: 'Look, I've never had to ask anything from anyone ever before.' They're really embarrassed about it. They need me to help them, but they're ashamed to ask me to help them."
And that's a very new thing, she said.
But for those who make it to her shelter, Childress will get whatever they need: gasoline for a car, an ID, clothing.
"The best-dressed homeless gentleman this season is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, pair of Levis, clean white socks," she said. "I can get work boots or comfortable walking shoes for you. I have backpacks, belts in case the britches are just a little too large, things like that. ... I have a laundry service. I'll wash 10 items of your clothes a week — wash them, dry them, fold them and give them back to you. We got it going on over here."
One of the people who has come for help is Gary Buchanan, who was wearing jeans and a black T-shirt and carried an envelope full of job applications. His green van was parked in the lot outside. He has invited two other guys to stay with him there.
"Three guys living in a minivan, it's not very accommodating," he said. "Just let the front seats back. One of us curls up in the back seat, you stretch across the seats. But it's home."
He said they sometimes park in people's yards, or in a Wal-Mart parking lot — "wherever we can."
Last fall, Buchanan was living in Alabama, working on military vehicles for a government contractor. He had a steady job. Then, on Thanksgiving weekend, he was laid off and couldn't pay the rent. He lost a home, "lost everything," he said.
So he got in his van and made his way to Florida to look for work.
"I've never been in this situation before; it's totally new," he said. "I never would have imagined a few years ago it could have been me. I'll be 46 Sunday — my first birthday homeless."