More Families Find Themselves Homeless Amid Economy

Families are the nation's fastest growing segment of the homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. And with the economic crisis, particularly the rising rate of foreclosures and unemployment, it's a trend that might continue. Annice and Edwin Greene, a married couple with children, live in a Virginia homeless shelter. They explain the difficulty of raising a family in a shelter and their plans to get back on their feet.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the second anniversary of TELL ME MORE is coming up and I have a few thank yous to deliver and some thoughts. But first, it's time for us to go Behind Closed Doors. That's our weekly conversation where we talk about issues that are often kept hidden. Today, homelessness. Now, what image comes to mind when you think about the homeless? You might think that a homeless person is a chronic alcoholic or somebody with mental health or addiction issues that have just became too taxing for family to deal with. And there is some truth to that but, what if the whole family is homeless?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless there is strong evidence that homelessness among families is increasing and that homeless families are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, says that 71 percent of the cities they surveyed in 2008 reported an increase in the number of families with children seeking emergency aid. And they point out that families with children often double up with other family members, so aren't counted as officially homeless even though they are. We wanted to talk about what's going on.

So, we called Annice and Edwin Greene. She had been working as an administrative assistant before she lost her job and he is a professional cook and caterer. They've been living in a homeless shelter with their four children since late February. Also joining us is Barbara Anderson. She is founding director of Haven House Services in Indiana, and secretary of the National Coalition for the Homeless. I welcome all of you, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. EDWIN GREENE (Unemployed): Thank you.

Ms. BARBARA ANDERSON (Director, Haven House Services, Indiana and Secretary, National Coalition for the Homeless): Thank you.

Ms. ANNICE GREENE (Unemployed): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Now Mr. and Mrs. Greene, I wanted to ask you about the chain of circumstances that led to your being in this shelter right now. Annice, why don't you start. As I understand it, you lost your job just a week or so after informing your then employer that you were pregnant with your fourth child. And as I understand that Mr. Greene was trying to start a business. So, your income was essentially supporting the family. Do I have that about right?

Ms. GREENE: Somewhat. He had been doing some odds-and-ends work through some restaurants. And like you said, a week after I had informed my boss that I was pregnant, I was terminated. Along with that there were some medical issues in the family that resulted in - all within that same week though - resulted into a loss of my work and another loss of income. And I was unable to work for a short period of time due to some medical concerns.

MARTIN: So, he was unable to take up the slack in income. Is that what happened after you lost your job?

Ms. GREENE: Temporarily, no…

MARTIN: And kind of snowball from there.

Ms. GREENE: Yes, it was a ripple effect. We were unable to hold on to the home, essentially not pay any - unable to pay any of the utilities and provide on a day-to-day basis as we normally would.

MARTIN: And Mr. Green, do you mind if I ask, a lot of people would ask this question. I hope it's not too personal but some people would say, well, no family to help out?

Mr. GREENE: No ma'am, unfortunately, that is we didn't have anyone to help us. So, therefore we moved back to Virginia. We lived over there for a short period of time, and as she said, we weren't able to make money. So, therefore, bills was coming to her house also. And we just seeked out for shelter and we heard about the transitional housing. And it's looking good for us right now. The shelters are - they're helping us, they have all different type of programs. They help as far as getting around, gas cards, you know, clothing, food, shelter. You know, it's just been great here.

MARTIN: I understand that you just came from a job interview, too, on your way to visit with us. That must be encouraging.

Mr. GREENE: Yes ma'am, I feel very good about that.

MARTIN: Barbara Anderson, can I ask you, are you hearing more stories like the Greene's? That just kind of, one thing leads to another thing and then they find that they're not able to keep with their bills. Are you seeing that?

Ms. ANDERSON: Yes, in a smaller community like Jeffersonville, our city had 29,000 in it, until this past year when we annexed a community which will increase us to 40. But our shelter is the only shelter in a two-hour radius. And what we see is small business going down and people losing their jobs or they'll be downsized or they're taken to part time by larger businesses that have had to scale back, like retail for instance and restaurants because people just aren't spending money they way they were. And they're not shopping. And as a result of that we have many more employed homeless but under-employed homeless.

MARTIN: So, you're saying you have folks who are - who are living in your shelters who are going to work everyday but they can't make enough to keep themselves in their own homes?

Ms. ANDERSON: Exactly. In our shelter about 60 percent of the folks work. But their average wage is going to be about 6.50 an hour. It takes $12.57 an hour to live independently in our community. So, they would need to work at least, at that wage, two jobs full time to be able to make it in our community. The average cost of housing is 525 for a two bedroom. And the number of foreclosures have increased so dramatically. We're seeing such a new influx of people who have experienced homelessness that never thought they would.

MARTIN: And a lot of families with children?

Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, our youngest resident is six weeks old.

MARTIN: Wow. Mr. Greene, you wanted to say something.

Mr. GREENE: Unfortunately, a two bedroom apartment here would cost $1200 a month. So, it's very hard to get out there and make that money at the wage of 6.55 and so, therefore, you know, we just got to do all we can. My wife, she's trying to go to work. We have seeked daycare, so therefore we have someone to watch the kids while we both work because just one person working alone, we still be stuck.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And we're speaking with Annice and Edwin Greene, their family of six is currently living at a homeless shelter in Virginia. We're also speaking with Barbara Anderson. She's founding director of Haven House Services in Jeffersonville, Indiana. And we're talking about the whole situation of whole families losing their homes. And Annice, talk to me little bit about this. How, like how are you trying to work out the whole daycare thing? Your youngest is how old now?

Ms. GREENE: She just turned five months yesterday. And yes, that's a job within itself. When you look at statistically speaking, with one person working as you said, it would be really impossible for us to get back on our feet and provide child care. You would need a job in itself to provide the child care. It's resulted in us going down to Social Services and asking for some assistance for child care so that we could participate in some of the jump start programs, so that we both can get out and work and hopefully to get to a point where we could put some money aside to where we can get out on our own and pay for our own childcare.

The only problem that we're dealing with right now is providing for the home, getting a home and sustaining all of this at one time.

MARTIN: Yeah, you're trying to figure out how you're going to pay for housing and for childcare at the same time. Now you've one child who is school age, right? You have a seven-year old.

Ms. GREENE: Yes, we do.

MARTIN: You've got the four, the two and your five-month old, who would need full time care. I did want to ask you about this. How is your seven-year old dealing with all this?

Ms. GREENE: He is a character within himself. He - his spirits have been great through it all. A lot of people think that most of the strength would have to come from the adults, the mommy and daddy. But it takes the family as a whole to get through this. And the children are a great impact on us continuing to strive. We've explained to our oldest son in a way that a child could understand that we're going through a transitional phase right now. And he's been supportive of it.

We have been fortunate that the programs here at the shelter that the children participate in kind of allows them to get a breakaway in the mind as a sense of being somewhere that's not there. The programs provide some educational learning and also great activities to keep them occupied. So, less focused on being in one room with six people. They don't look at that so to speak as day to day.

MARTIN: But are you able at least to keep him in school, to keep him consistently going to school?

Ms. GREENE: Yes, we are. They also provide bus services to allow him to go to the school that we had him enrolled in. That way he wouldn't have to go in and out of schools and make a transition as the new job throughout this transition the whole time.

MARTIN: But is it hard for him. I mean, he can't have other kids over, for example.

Ms. GREENE: No, he can't do that. In the bus ride actually he is the first one to leave and the last one to get back. But he's been pretty good about that because we're not the only family in the shelter with this same situation. There are children his age in multiple rooms in the shelter. So, they've actually established some great friendships throughout the situation that kind of, sad to say, that we all have to go eventually in our own direction - different directions. But some of the people that we've met along the way, we would love for our children to stay in touch with, as well as the adults, their parents, because we're all striving for the same thing.

MARTIN: You know, I appreciate what you're saying, and I hear you're emphasizing the positive, which is great, especially when you have kids. But do you mind - you know, maintaining a positive frame of mind is so important - but I did want to ask, if you don't mind, Mrs. Greene, What's the hardest part about for you?

Ms. GREENE: The hardest part is giving my children a date. The question does come up: Mommy or Daddy, when are we moving to our place? And we've had some feedback as far as things that were in place where we could tell them it would be a week or two, and then we'd go to the interviews. And our situation, the hardest thing for us, our situation itself, we are a full family - it's an emergency for everyone, but we are kind of looked at as having someone to lean on, so to speak. You know, the situations are the same. We're looked at differently, opposed to a single mother with children who's in the same situation.

MARTIN: Can I ask, Barbara Anderson(ph), can I ask you this? Is that your understanding about the way things work, that two-parent families are not viewed as significant a priority as a single-parent household?

Ms. BARBARA ANDERSON: Well, I don't know that that's the issue. I think what happens is that this is a new anomaly. We are not used to seeing as many two-parent households as we once did. The typical population for us was a single mom with two to three children.

Now we're seeing couples with their children, who have lost their jobs, lost their housing - they've never been homeless before. And while I think that it's great that Mrs. Greene is in a wonderful facility that's giving her some good, positive steps to get out of her homelessness, those services are not available across the country.

Many of us don't have transitional housing units. The waiting lists are huge, and child-care vouchers just don't exist unless you're on TANF, which is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. And so a five-month-old baby here costs $125 a week for care. You would pay another $75 for the three-year-old and another $75 to $100 for the five-year-old and the seven-year-old if they had after-school care. So the cost for child care alone in our communities would prohibit a second job.

So what we see is that intact families have a harder time in our shelters because oftentimes there's not enough space for them to stay intact, to have their own room, and the men will go downstairs, while the mother and the children stay upstairs. That causes its own special set of tensions for the family, and it also - what we see a lot of is children who have been in this situation for a lot of years experience some really strong episodes of depression.

Those new to homelessness are frightened and scared and tense, and it's great when they have two parents with them because they have the security of knowing that love, but when you have one parent, and the other parent's left the picture, think of what that does to the child and to the parent that's left to take care of the child.

MARTIN: The sense of vulnerability must be amazing.

Ms. ANDERSON: It's horribly amazing.

MARTIN: Mr. Greene, can I ask: What's the hardest part for you?

Mr. GREENE: Well, just me being the man and unable to sustain the home for my family. I think that's what gets me the most. And I've always been the provider, and no matter what, I work. I don't care what type of work it is. If I've got to sustain the roof, I'm going to do it, and you know, like you're saying, due to my health, I had heart failure, and the doctor really don't want me working, but I still get up and go out and do what I've got to do.

I mean, I'm to the point where I would go to the grave trying, no matter what, for my family.

MARTIN: Well thank you for speaking with us. That's very stressful. This whole situation is very stressful. What - Mr. Greene, can I ask: What do you think would ease your burden?

Mr. GREENE: Well just - I mean, I'm not here for what you call - just give me something. I mean, I'm willing to work. If I could just get on my feet, just get me a nice job to provide for my family, that would ease my burden right there. And you know, just get us an apartment or something, get on our way. And I'll be grateful with that, with a nice, steady job. That would ease my burden.

MARTIN: Well good luck to you. Thank you for that. I appreciate it.

Barbara Anderson, can I ask you for a final thought? From a policy perspective, what's on your mind, looking at the sort of the totality of the picture because it sounds to me, like, from what you're seeing, you've got both rural areas and suburban and urban areas. The situations are different.

I mean, you say there isn't even - the level of service that the Greenes are able to benefit from doesn't exist where you are. So what would you hope that policymakers would be thinking about when they think about stories like the Greenes and what you're doing?

Ms. ANDERSON: I think the first thing they have to think about is their responsibility to the poor in this country. Homelessness is about poverty, and poverty has never been dealt with in any real way in America. We wouldn't be here today if policy had been effective and hadn't been stripped to its core.

During the last administration, they developed what they called the Chronic Homeless Initiative, which basically diverted the resources to single, disabled adults, leaving families vulnerable in communities. So I think the last administration can look directly to it - we can look at that administration and know that they have helped to create this problem.

MARTIN: Annice Greene, do you have a final thought for us?

Ms. GREENE: Yes, I do. We live on the concept of the American dream, the one nation under God. So we've been walking by faith through this, and that's what we have to hold on to, and it is an urban community that we do live in, but at the same time, with the amount of people here and the homelessness rate here as well, it's more of a - it's not, I don't even want to say dog eat dog. For every one job that's there, there are 50 to 150 people out to get it, and that goes for the housing, the transitional housing as well.

They do have programs that are there and available but for a limited amount. So like my husband said, just to be able to say that we have a steady job in this hard economic time and a place for our children to lay our heads, no matter where we are in the United States, it's an issue and a concern.

MARTIN: Annice and Edwin Greene joined from Serve Incorporated. That's a homeless shelter in Virginia, where they're currently living with their four young children. We were also joined by Barbara Anderson. She's founding director of Haven House Services in Jeffersonville, Indiana. She's also secretary of the National Coalition for the Homeless, and she's currently talking to us from Louisville, Kentucky. Thank you all so much for speaking with us, and good luck to all of you.

Mr. GREENE: Thank you.

Ms. GREENE: Thank you.

Ms. ANDERSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, President Obama whetted his appetite for public service in community organizing, and now he's encouraging other Americans to consider service for a period of time or as a way of life.

President BARACK OBAMA: We need your service right now, at this moment in history. I'm not going to tell you what your role should be. That's for you to discover, but I'm asking you to stand up and play your part.

MARTIN: We talk with a community organizer about what this new emphasis on community service might mean. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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