Many Americans Will Spend Holidays Homeless
ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
A special holiday edition of the Barbershop today. The guys are taking their virtual seats in the shop and you'll hear from them a bit later in the program.
But first, many of you may still be in Thanksgiving mode, away visiting with family and friends or just kicking back watching some football.
But for as many 1.6 million Americans, home sweet home this weekend is likely to be a homeless shelter or some form of transitional housing. With mounting foreclosures, record unemployment and further state budget cuts looming, the number of sheltered homeless people is expected to rise.
Statistics show that between 2007 and 2009, family homelessness rose nearly 30 percent. Earlier this year, the Obama administration unveiled a new plan, the first of its kind, aimed at ending homelessness in 10 years.
To talk more about just how that plan is expected to work and what it means to be homeless in America today, I'm joined in our Washington studio by Nan Roman. She's the executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
We also have with us Noelle Beaumon, a former corporate manager who currently lives in a homeless shelter here in Washington. Thank you both for coming in.
Ms. NAN ROMAN (Executive Director, National Alliance to End Homelessness): Thank you.
Ms. NOELLE BEAUMON: Thank you.
KEYES: Now, let me start with you. I think for a lot of people, when you think of homeless, you think of the guys sleeping on the street. I mean that's the stereotype. But is that really what homelessness looks like today?
Ms. ROMAN: That really is not what homelessness looks like today. Almost half of people who are homeless are people living in families. That percentage of people who are sort of the stereotype, single adult males with disabilities, mental illness, substance abuse, disorders, and so forth, is more like 20 percent of the homeless population.
And for about 80 percent of people who are homeless, really, homelessness is an economic situation. They don't make enough money or have enough money to pay rent. And housing costs have gone up significantly faster and higher than incomes have gone up over the past 20 years.
KEYES: Noelle, can you tell us what happened to you.
Ms. BEAUMON: Well, I was working in corporate America, and I had a job that I was working at for 11 years. I thought I would retire from that job. And in 2008, with the economy, with the recession that we were in, my department was done away with. And in doing so, I was sent on my with 10 weeks severance pay.
KEYES: Ten weeks?
Ms. BEAUMON: Ten weeks severance pay. That's it. And in that position, you know, trying to find a job and doing the same thing that I was doing was very, very difficult. And then even applying for an eight dollar an hour job, no one wants to hire someone who basically makes $30 an hour for an $8 an hour job.
And trying to make ends meet was impossible. I basically went through my savings, my 401k, unemployment as long as I could get it, and I lost my home. And I had two kids in college. I'm a divorced mom with two kids in college. It was very devastating.
KEYES: That must be terrifying.
Ms. BEAUMON: It is. It was the scariest I've ever been through in my entire life. I'd never in my life been homeless, never faced a situation like that.
KEYES: I mean, so when you lose your house, I mean, do the marshals come to your house?
Ms. BEAUMON: I was evicted. And to see years of personal belongings on the street, I could not stop the tears. And I gathered what I could, put what I could in storage and the rest stayed on the street. It was devastating.
KEYES: How did you make the decision to go to a shelter?
Ms. BEAUMON: I had no other option. I had some family in the area, but they were not in the position to actually take me in. They have large families of their own. So I needed to kind of pick myself up and I made that decision very quickly and I called the shelter hotline and immediately got into an emergency shelter. I was fortunate for that.
KEYES: An emergency shelter means that you can't stay there all day.
Ms. BEAUMON: You cannot. You go in at 7 p.m. and you get to spend the night, and at seven in the morning, you have to be out with all of your belongings.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we're talking about homelessness in America. I'm with Nan Roman, the executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness; and Noelle Beaumon, a former corporate manager who moved into a homeless shelter after being evicted from her rental home.
Nan, let me come back to you for a minute. I've been reading that one of the newer approaches to trying to help the homeless is giving people money to pay up to 18 months of rent, as opposed to keeping people in shelters. Is that's what's happening now?
Ms. ROMAN: Yes. I think there is a movement to - really, based on data that shows that it works better and is more effective, that's called housing first or rapid re-housing and it's essentially saying it's better to prevent people from becoming homeless.
People in Noelle's situation or to help them get quickly back into apartment rather than essentially let them enter the shelter system or transitional housing and spend long periods of time living there just trying to save up enough money to move back into an apartment.
KEYES: But I know people that have been looking for a job longer than that. I mean, if the money runs out in 18 months, aren't you back where you started?
Ms. ROMAN: You may be back where you started - I mean, in theory, the system should be organized so that if you needed more help at the end of 18 months, you could continue to get assistance.
But I think the other way to think of it is how you could really, you know, perhaps speak to this but how you can get yourself together, the difficulties of doing that when you're living at a shelter that you have to leave at seven in the morning, you don't have a telephone, you can't copy your resume, you can't get yourself ready to look for work.
I think housing is really the platform from which many, many other things come - employment, education, good health, a healthy environment for your children. We have to have shelter for everyone who needs it, but it's not the optimum housing situation.
KEYES: Noelle, let me ask you, what is it like at the shelter?
Ms. BEAUMON: Actually, I flew from the emergency shelter to Entry Village(ph).
KEYES: So that's - and that's different than the emergency shelter.
Ms. BEAUMON: Totally different.
KEYES: Tell us a little bit why.
Ms. BEAUMON: Well, the reason why it's different is, number one, I get better services. In an emergency shelter, you get no services really. So at least there I have the ability to see a doctor without worrying about the insurance so much. I get to participate in a lot of self-care activities.
So it's a lot better. I don't have to be on the street until 7 o'clock at night. I'm able to go in at four. And I'm busy until four now and have a nice warm bed in a much better environment than what I was in. I was in a shelter that house 80 women in one room. I'm not in that situation anymore, and I'm blessed for that. So, yeah, it's a lot better where I am right now.
KEYES: As a woman, I can imagine how terrifying it must be to have nowhere to be and to have to drive all of your stuff with you. Is it worse than what (unintelligible) are you more at risk?
Ms. BEAUMON: I think you are at risk, because at emergency shelter you're dealing with people that have mental disabilities that are unchecked. You're dealing with people who have been into criminal justice system and are freshly out. You're dealing with all walks of life and there are no services there for these people at all, including myself.
To get any help, it's up to you to get the help when you're in an emergency situation. It was the most scariest thing ever. I didn't sleep. I lost 20 pounds during that one month that I was there. So, fortunately for me, I gained the 20 pounds back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BEAUMON: And I feel happier and healthier than I probably have, believe it or not, in a very long time. Believe it or not, this process has allowed me to find myself and to find strength that I didn't know that I actually had.
KEYES: Nan, what kind of programs are there to help people that are just on the edge? I mean, like Noelle said, she was renting a house, lost her job. Are there places that people can go before they get to the point of being evicted?
Ms. ROMAN: Yeah. So, there's always been a little bit of prevention money or places that people can go so that they don't get evicted. And there are also all kinds of legal programs and so forth, but they've never been anywhere close to scale.
In the stimulus bill there was actually a new program that was introduced called HPRP, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program. It was a $1.5 billion program that distributed money across the country, really, to try to prevent a big increase in homelessness resulting from the recession and the high unemployment rates, which we expected and, frankly, we still do expect.
But the HPRP, Homelessness Prevention Rapid Rehousing Program, was very effective in setting up prevention programs that tried to help people before they lost their housing, to stay where they are rather than becoming homeless. And then the rapid rehousing part, as we discussed, is if they do become homeless, try to get people back into an apartment much more rapidly.
KEYES: I just have to say, Noelle was sitting there shaking her head, yeah, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BEAUMON: I got to be honest with you, I think I tried everything possible to stay in my home. I think there's a problem with the middle class America that when you do get into that point, their services are not there. Believe me, I called everywhere trying to find money to stay in my home. The money was not there, the services were not there. So I got to tell you, I hear what you're saying, Nan, but it's not as simple as you're making it out to be.
Ms. ROMAN: Yeah. Well, I would also, I mean, she's right in terms of income qualification because these programs are really designed to serve people below 30 percent of their median incomes. I can see that Noelle probably didn't qualify for them when she was going through that.
And it's also the case that, you know, people did what I'm sure you did, which is, they sort of worked their way through their assets. So at the point when they're about to be evicted, often people still have some assets and then they don't qualify for these programs. It's not to scale, I mean there's not enough of it, but they're, at least I think it's been helping.
KEYES: I'm wondering, Nan, what do you think are the chances of success, this plan to end homelessness in 10 years? I mean, is it possible at all that this would work?
Ms. ROMAN: Well, I think it's completely possible that it would work. It's definitely a huge challenge that we're in the middle of the recession and the high unemployment rates. And, actually, the federal government has just gotten on the bandwagon with the plans to end homelessness. But communities had been doing this since about 2000. And the numbers nationally had been going down up until the recession.
And now they've flattened out. I think they haven't gone up, but I think they will. I think they, sadly, I think they will start to go up because we just can't have two years of high unemployment, increasing poverty, and expect this not to have an impact.
KEYES: Noelle Beaumon is a former corporate manager currently living in a Washington, D.C. homeless shelter and Nan Roman is executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Thank you both for taking the time to come talk to us. And, Noelle, best of luck.
Ms. BEAUMON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Ms. ROMAN: Thanks.
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