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More on Family Homelessness


Our People Are Freezing to Death


In the 19th century, America began a sweeping social movement that was later known as the Age of Reform. During this time, attempts were made to correct a lot of social ills. The effects of this can be seen in programs like increased medical care for citizens, drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation centers, and a general attempt to make it easier for poorer people to still have a decent standard of living. While most of these things were to some degree successful, one problem has only increased since that time, and is still proving tough to solve. That problem is homelessness. Almost every major and mid-sized urban center in America has a homeless problem. Scattered throughout most street corners in a typical downtown area there are men, women, and increasingly children sleeping on the street. None of these people have other places to live. And even though cities often have homeless shelters, they are usually inadequate to accommodate the demands placed upon them. During the cold and wet months of winter, the situation can turn especially severe as people without protection from the elements can freeze to death.

One reason the problem continues is because it is difficult to know how many people are homeless at any given time. According to the White House's commission on homelessness, the estimate has been placed as high as seven million people. This number is only an estimate because the homeless are very difficult to count. They are often in places where researchers and aid workers cannot find them. According to one survey of people who had formerly been homeless, a number of them had stayed in their cars, many had been well hidden in the streets, and some had even stayed in caves or other natural shelters. It is also difficult to count the number of homeless because the number is always changing. Any number of people experience homeless throughout the course of their lives. There are as many reasons for this as there are people on the streets. A lot of people live from paycheck to paycheck, and if they are laid off from their jobs, or they have an unexpected expense, like a medical bill, it can severely compromise their ability to make ends meet.

If the unexpected happens, and you found yourself forced out of your home what would you do? This could mean anything from a natural disaster, to your parents losing their jobs because their companies downsized, letting people go to save money. Your family might be forced to split up, and stay with different friends and relatives until something could be done. Your period of homelessness might be short, and soon your family would be together again, in a new home. For a lot of people, this is exactly what happens. They are never forced into homeless shelters, and they certainly don't have to sleep on the streets. But what happens when you don't have family in the area, or people with the space to take you in?

In these situations, people, and sometimes whole families, are forced to live in homeless shelters. A shelter usually consists of a cot to sleep on and little else. Occasionally, there will be a soup kitchen attached or nearby that can provide people with one or two meals a day. One of the problems with shelters is that there are not enough of them. In fact, in some cities, there may only be enough beds for about 20% of the people on the street at any given time. The rest are turned away, even during the middle of winter, in the middle of night. If you are lucky enough to get a place in the shelter your problems don't stop there-inside the shelter might be worse. Drugs, crime, and violence are often found in shelters and people usually sleep with all their belongings on them to avoid vandalism while they sleep.

Today, a growing number of the people on the streets are children. Teenagers living in groups are becoming increasingly common sights in many cities. They usually band together as much for friendship as for protection on the streets. There are as many reasons for homeless kids as homeless adults. Some of them were runaways, having fled abusive relationships at home, while some may have been kicked out of their houses by their parents, especially if they have had trouble with the law. Unwed teen mothers also experience homelessness in shockingly high numbers. Living on the streets has its hazards, and many people become victims of drug abuse or violence. Even if you escape those, it can very difficult to get yourself off the street.

Unfortunately the homeless problem won't be solved with any easy fixes. Part of the problem is that many people think homeless people choose to be on the streets, or they blame them for being on the streets. A lot of homeless people have turned to drugs and alcohol, and these are seen as the reasons why they are homeless. In fact most people do not want to be on the streets, and most acquired habits after being forced out of their homes. Despite these problems, there are still things that can be done. There are many organizations organizations trying to help by maintaining soup kitchens or food banks where anyone can volunteer and help serve a much-needed hot meal. Also, many school and religious groups operate food drives, or go into cities and hand out food to the homeless people they come across. Eradicating the homeless from our streets will not be easy, but will only be done through conscientious efforts that hopefully will continue the great strides begun in the Age of Reform.

Above all, recognizing the problem and not turning away from it is the most important thing you can do.



Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Public school's best friend
Teddy - Those radical, shakin' Quakers!
Daphne - Standing up for the mentally ill
Rebecca - A simple walk 'round Walden Pond
Teddy -- Intellectuals plow into a farming commune
Kevin -- Class struggle takes center stage
Neda - Looking for Utopia - and mint chocolate chip ice cream