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SCOTT SIMON, host:

A month ago, NPR's David Greene set off on a road trip to try to understand this recession through the lives of Americans, their observations, struggles, conquests. David's traveling to the end of President Obama's first 100 days in office, and so far he has driven I-75 top to bottom, spent one day in Bradenton, Florida, hanging out with the mailman.

DAVID GREENE: You want to know how much Mark Sinnen loves his job? Check out the U.S. Postal Service eagle tattooed across his thigh.

Mr. MARK SINNEN (Mail Carrier): You know, we fly like an eagle and so I commemorated it with a little tattoo on my leg.

GREENE: It's not so little, maybe the size of a baseball glove. Now, like a lot of people, I enjoy getting to know my letter carriers. But I always wondered what their day is like.

Mr. SINNEN: This is actually a pretty dirty job. You might get your mail in pristine condition, but that's because most of the dust and dirt has come off on your letter carrier.

GREENE: Mark Sinnen's 52 and has been delivering the mail for 30 years. He wrote an e-mail to our Web site saying I should come drive with him along one of his mail routes. Turns out when you have a routine and meet the same people each day, you notice things.

Mr. SINNEN: Every now and then you'll see the father of the family that you never used to see, and then he'll be home and he's in a foul mood when he comes up to grab the mail, not been able to find a job.

GREENE: Sinnen has also felt the housing crisis, literally carrying all those foreclosure notices in his hands. And there've just been fewer people saying hi.

Mr. SINNEN: It was disheartening. You'd carry the mail to these folks and 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, so we end up returning their mail.

GREENE: He's brought mail for some of them 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 Mark Sinnen has seen families one day in their house, the next day seeking shelter. The postman brings me to Open Door so I can meet someone.

Ms. MARTHA CHILDRESS (Coordinator, Open Door): Mark is great. Mark puts up with us. Oh, honey child. He brings me piles and piles of mail. And he has people standing out here in the parking lot: You got my mail?

GREENE: Martha Childress is the coordinator here. She's also 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 she got this time last year.

Ms. CHILDRESS: We're seeing a much better class of homeless person now. And I see people that do this to me: Look, I have never had to ask anybody for anything ever before. They're really embarrassed about it. They need me to help them, but they're ashamed to ask me to help them.

GREENE: And is that a new, a new thing that you've seen in the last...

Ms. CHILDRESS: A very new, very new thing. Yes.

GREENE: Childress says if you make it to her center she'll get you whatever you need: gas for your car, an I.D., or clothing.

Ms. CHILDRESS: The best-dressed homeless gentleman this season is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, pair of Levis, clean white socks. I can get work boots or comfortable walking shoes for you, belts, in case the britches are just a little too large. 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.

GREENE: One of the people who is here for help is Gary Buchanan. He's in jeans and a black T-shirt and he's carrying an envelope full of job applications. He's got a green van in the parking lot.

Mr. GARY BUCHANAN: Three guys living in the minivan and it's not very accommodating. Just stretch across the seats, but it's home. It ain't much, but it's...

GREENE: Do you leave it here? Where do you...

Mr. BUCHANAN: Park in people's yards, sometimes Wal-Mart parking lots. You know, wherever we can.

GREENE: This is his van and he's invited two guys to stay with him. As of last fall, Gary Buchanan was living in Alabama, working on military vehicles for a government contractor. He had a steady job. But Thanksgiving weekend he was laid off and couldn't pay the rent. So he got in this van and drove to Florida to look for work.

Mr. BUCHANAN: Lost my home, lost everything.

GREENE: Have you ever been homeless before?

Mr. BUCHANAN: No. I never have been in this situation at all before; it's something totally new. I never would have imagined a few years ago that it could have been me. I'll be 46 Sunday, my first birthday homeless.

GREENE: Here's a guy who says he used to walk by homeless people and feel no connection. The reality that he's now homeless himself sunk in slowly. But somehow Gary Buchanan is staying upbeat.

He's not alone facing tough circumstances. One of the first people I met on this trip was Shane Bailey(ph), out of work in Michigan.

Mr. SHANE BAILEY: Up here, Michigan, it's like once the auto market goes, there goes the state of Michigan, basically. But I do have family support. I do have a lot of friend support.

GREENE: Down I-75 in Kentucky I met Faye Womack(ph).

Ms. FAYE WOMACK: You know, it's bad. It is really bad. There's nowhere to get a job.

GREENE: In Atlanta it was Katherine Dyer(ph).

Ms. KATHERINE DYER: They came in and laid off seven out of eight full-time people in one day, in the morning.

GREENE: And then 76-year-old Noah Lindsay, who lost his part-time job working in the stacks at a library in Florida.

Mr. NOAH LINDSAY: There are survivalists among us. We will, we'll make it.

GREENE: Just a few of the more than three million people who've lost jobs in this recession so far.

I'm David Greene, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can track David's trip on an interactive map at NPR.org/100Days, where you can also submit story ideas, read his blog posts, and see his latest photos and talk to him on Twitter.

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