New Face Of Homelessness: The American Family
GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
If you look at the year in economic statistics, you could tell two different stories of two different Americas. The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a two-year high this week: retail sales, industrial production, factory orders, all are up. And the biggest corporations are posting healthy profits. And yet, hidden among all these trends is one that was released this past week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In 2010, cities across America saw a 9 percent increase in the number of families seeking emergency shelter. One out of 200 people in America slept in a homeless shelter this past year. The homeless crisis now affects more families, people who just a year or two ago had jobs, apartments, relatively stable lives that affects more families in that any other time in recent history.
And so on this Christmas Day, we bring you the stories of three of those families: the Gibsons from Washington, D.C.; the Stewarts from Salt Lake City, Utah; and the Browns, also from Utah.
We start with the story of Jamie Stewart(ph).
Ms. JAMIE STEWART: I have to be here with my daughter and grandson. I mean, not being able to have our own house and - because I know I'm better - well, not better than that, but I mean, I know I can do it. It's just - the work is just hard after hard. You know, you go to an (unintelligible), there's 15 people there. And (unintelligible) always is to having my own place and being able to provide for my family, which I can't right now.
RAZ: Jamie Stewart lives in the shelter for homeless families with her 18-year-old daughter Emilia(ph) and Emilia's 3-month-old son in Salt Lake City. You just heard Emilia patting his back in that clip.
Jamie left Arizona earlier this year with Emilia and the baby to tend to her dying father in Utah. They lived with her sister for a few weeks; eventually in a car for another week. Jamie thought she'd find a job pretty quickly. She's a nurse, and maybe getting apartment. But she hasn't, except for some seasonal work with UPS.
Ms. STEWART: It's sad. In the first place, I don't have, you know, we don't have our own place. We don't have it free. I just haven't really even thought about the holidays. I haven't. I'm not shopping. I'm not buying for anybody. I'm not - because, of course, I'm saving my money to get a place and to...
Ms. EMILIA STEWART: It's definitely hard just because it's my son's first Christmas and we can't really celebrate out. We can't really buy him the things that we need for him. And so definitely makes it a lot harder knowing and having to look at my mom and not watch her open Christmas presents, Christmas morning and (unintelligible) people say that they know how it is. They - but they don't.
So I tend to ask them, have you ever looked down at your 3-month-year-old son not knowing where you're going to be next, or if you're going to have a roof over your head, or diapers to put on him, or a bottle to feed him? It's hard.
RAZ: That's Jamie and Emilia Stewart in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Mr. DAVID BROWN: My name is David Brown. I'm 31. I'm living currently out here in Magna, Utah.
RAZ: Exactly a year ago, David Brown lost his job at Wal-Mart. And for most of this year, David and his wife Nicole and their four kids, 11-year-old Chloe, 9-year-old Seth, 5-year-old Cameron, and J.J.(ph) who's 2, have been homeless.
Mr. BROWN: You know, we were avoiding the actual shelter itself at all cost. You know, staying with family member here or family member there, ending up staying in the pop-up trailer in your friend's driveway. You know, we were doing pretty much everything we had to to avoid the shelter.
RAZ: At one point, the whole family slept in their van.
Mr. BROWN: You know, when you're in that type of situation, it's not easy to sleep because, you know, kids are scared, of course, and, you know, that's who you're there for, is you're there to let the children know that everything is going to be okay and you're not going to let anything happen.
So, you know, constant cars driving by, you never know what's about to happen. If, you know, someone's looking the brake into a car and they'd stop in the pit the wrong one, you know? So I'd remember there was like very little to no sleep at all. I think I slept maybe a total of 45 minutes.
RAZ: The family did end up in the shelter for sometime. Luckily, David Brown found a job a few months ago, and the family now lives in an apartment in Magna, Utah.
Mr. BROWN: You know, there's a lot of things you look at in life and there's a lot of times in life where you would look at a situation, and that's the first thing that comes in your head, and that happened to me, you know? And I can honestly say that as far as being homeless, I was one of those skeptics that believed it will never happen to me.
You just never know where life's going to take you. And you may think that everything is fine and great one day and wake up the next and have everything passed down around you. And it's possible to (unintelligible).
Mr. ANTONIO GIBSON: My name is Antonio Gibson. I'm 28 years old. And I reside in Washington, D.C.
RAZ: Statistically, Antonio Gibson doesn't even exist. It's not often academic studies or towering speeches are devoted to single black fathers. Antonio raises his two kids, 9-year-old Navia(ph) and 3-year-old Antonio Jr., by himself.
Last year, the mother of his two kids left after she lost her job at Bank of America. At the time, Antonio was a part-time janitor. He cleaned floors at NASA headquarters at night.
Mr. GIBSON: I tried to, with my part-time job, maintain the bills and the household and all the other necessities. But after a while, I guess it became a little bit too much, and we've gotten debt with the rent and with other bills and everything and we received our very first eviction threat.
RAZ: That was last November. And for most of the past 13 months, Antonio, Navia and Antonio Jr. lived in a car. He would tell Navia that they were camping or that the house was being renovated. He tried to find temporary housing, but all of them were full. And each time, he was turned away.
So at night, Antonio would park the car in the garage of an abandoned house. He'd crack the windows for ventilation and say goodnight to his kids.
Mr. GIBSON: Looking in the backseat while they were sleeping in the car, it was just breaking me down, emotionally and mentally, you know? And I can also see a change in my daughter, you know, like she didn't talk no more. She was afraid to go to school, you know? And she always loves school since she was like 5 years old. So I just saw their big change, and then I knew that that's where it was coming from.
I would wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning and (unintelligible) tap water to (unintelligible), wash our face, brush our teeth or try to change their clothes. And I'll first drop my daughter off to her school at 8 o'clock. And drop my son off the daycare around 8, 8:30.
You know, I used to read them a story in the car, little books. They have this thing at my son's school called lending library, where you can get a book every day, bring it back every day. So, and we get a different book every day, and it was cool because they would go to sleep real easy with that, you know? So that was my daily routine.
RAZ: After 11 months in the car, the Gibsons finally managed to get a place through the city's Housing Authority. He's on food stamps now and paying rent with help from a local church.
Now, a moment ago, I mentioned new figures that show a 9 percent increase in homeless families in cities across America this year.
Maria Foscarinis with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says as dramatic as that number sounds, it's probably even higher.
Ms. MARIA FOSCARINIS (Founder/Executive Director, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty): Because what they are measuring is numbers of families who are seeking emergency shelter.
RAZ: Showing up at shelters.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Yes. And so by definition, that number is limited by existing shelter capacity, which we know is grossly insufficient to meet a need. The national estimate is that only about half of all homeless people are actually sheltered, and that's due to lack of shelter capacity.
RAZ: How do budget cuts in states and municipalities begin to make the problem worse? Because, of course, we haven't really seen the full impact of this budget cuts yet.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Exactly. Just this week, the D.C. City Council, since we're here in Washington, the local government passed a law that limits services here in Washington to people who can prove that they're D.C. residents. And this is supremely ironic and misconceived in our view because a big problem when you're homeless is you don't have ID, or it becomes very difficult to prove residency. But it's an indicator of the city trying to conserve its own resources.
RAZ: You're hearing reports of homeless shelters having to turn people away very, very frequently.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Absolutely. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors report that was just released earlier this week show - said that 27 percent of requests for emergency shelter on average were turned away.
RAZ: Twenty-seven percent.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: On average. And again, this is likely understating the problem, because at a certain point, people just give up.
RAZ: I mean, realistically, what could be done over the next two years? I mean, you're well aware that Congress is on a budget-cutting kick, the American public is demanding this. What can be done to begin to tackle this issue?
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Budget is obviously critical and it's really a matter of where our priorities are as a nation. So I think we know that if something is considered important, money can be found and money can be spent.
Banks were considered too big to fail. Well, I think we have to start thinking that in a country, such as the United States, that allowing people to be homeless, allowing children to go without a place to lay their heads at night is not something we will tolerate, and we have to be able to find the money to stop that, to ensure that everybody has a place to live.
RAZ: That's Maria Foscarinis. She is the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty here in Washington, D.C.
Maria, thank you for being here.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: If you're interested in finding out more about the groups that have helped the families we heard from earlier in the segment, here are a few websites: The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless helped Antonio Gibson find public housing. They're at legalclinic.org. Family Promise helped the Browns and Stewarts. They're at fpsl.org. And thanks to Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., for helping us this week with the story. You can find their website at catholiccharitiesdc.org.
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