homeless population in New York City has jumped sharply over the last year,
causing a record number of people to enter the shelter system. The increase has
forced the Bloomberg administration to open nine more shelters in just the last
two months — sometimes with only a few weeks’ notice to surrounding
The administration said the increase stemmed in part from the end of the city’s
main rent-subsidy program for homeless families. But the new shelters — five in
the Bronx, two in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn — have provoked criticism from
local officials who say they were blindsided by the decisions to open them.
The city, for example, relied upon its emergency authority to turn two
residential buildings on 95th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan into
shelters that will eventually house about 200 adult couples, officials said. The
buildings had recently been used as illegal hotels before they were shut down,
and they still have some long-term tenants.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services told the community board about its
plan in mid-July, only two weeks before people began moving in.
The commissioner of homeless services, Seth Diamond, said in an interview that
the city had no choice but to open the shelters, given the demand. The city
recorded 43,731 homeless people (25,475 adults and 18,256 children) in the
shelter system this week, up 18 percent from the 37,143 (21,807 adults and
15,336 children) a year ago, officials said. “We do have to move quickly, and we
have to always make sure that we have enough capacity,” Mr. Diamond said. “The
one thing we cannot do is have families come in and not have a place for them.”
Mr. Diamond said he did not believe that his department had deceived
neighborhoods by opening shelters with little notice, saying the process for
picking the sites had been done “always with community communication.”
The administration is not legally obligated to get the approval of community
boards before opening shelters, but its policy requires it to tell them of its
plans ahead of time.
Of the nine new shelters, the city opened three, including the two in Manhattan,
under its emergency authority, giving little notice before proceeding. Several
of the other shelters were opened under normal practices but officials had moved
quickly. The city told a community board in the Bronx this week that a 50-unit
homeless shelter would open within days.
By law, the city is obligated to supply shelter to people who have nowhere else
to go, though there are limits to how long they can stay.
The current shelter census is the highest ever, officials said; the number does
not represent the total homeless population in the city, because some people
avoid the shelter system.
Local officials and neighborhood leaders acknowledged the need for the shelters,
but said the Bloomberg administration had moved too abruptly.
Several elected officials sponsored a protest this week in front of the 95th
Street buildings, which are side by side between West End Avenue and Riverside
Drive. The buildings are privately owned, and the city is paying roughly $3,300
a unit a month, with two or three people living in each unit.
Manhattan’s borough president, Scott M. Stringer, said, “This is no way to meet
the needs of vulnerable citizens in this city by simply packing in hundreds and
hundreds of people in the dead of night without a long-range plan.”
Asked what the alternative should be, Mr. Stringer, a Democrat who is likely to
run for mayor next year, said, “Well, that is the conundrum.” He added: “You
still need to come to various constituencies to support a long-term policy to
meet a need that is expanding. It’s easy to throw 400 people in a community
without doing your homework.”
Other community leaders said they feared that the administration was rushing to
find beds for homeless people without first ensuring that there were adequate
social services for them. If not properly supervised, they said, the shelters
can become rife with drugs and crime.
“It isn’t because we don’t want them in our backyard,” said Mark N. Diller, who
is chairman of Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side. “It’s that we don’t
want a failure in our backyard.”
A 10-year resident of one of the buildings, Masako Koga, 48, said she noticed
new security guards on Monday and was then informed for the first time that
homeless people would soon be moving in. “There are so many vacant rooms,
though, so I knew it would be coming soon,” Ms. Koga said.
Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless,
said a weak economy and rising housing costs were major factors underlying the
rise in homelessness, particularly for black and Hispanic families.
“We’re facing the prospect of more and more shelters opening in the city,” Mr.
Markee said, “and that creates bad incentives for landlords to push out
low-income tenants in favor of doing deals with D.H.S.”
There are 228 homeless shelters in the city, up from 211 in June 2010. A vast
majority of them are privately run and financed by the Department of Homeless
The Bloomberg administration acknowledged that the end of Advantage, which was
the city’s signature program to combat homelessness, had played a significant
role in the increase in homelessness. The program gave subsidies to homeless
families for up to two years to help pay for their apartments if they were
employed. Some families who exhausted their Advantage benefits are now back in
the shelter system.
The city said last year that it was discontinuing the program because the state
was dropping its financial support.
“We are in a very difficult environment with a very successful program that
ended very abruptly,” Mr. Diamond, the homeless services commissioner, said. “At
that point, we said the result would be a significant increase in the homeless
population. The tragedy of losing Advantage was not just that we lost it, but
that we lost it at a time when money was so tight that it was almost impossible
to get it back.”
Tayna Munoz, 29, said that she had had an Advantage subsidy for two years, and
that once her eligibility ended, she continued in her job as an assistant in a
dentist’s office. But a few months later, she lost her position, leaving her
unable to afford all the rent and support her 8-year-old daughter.
Evicted from their apartment, she went to the Homelessness Department’s
Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing office in the Bronx to apply for
“My plan was to get help and save to get my own apartment,” Ms. Munoz said
outside the office. “Right now, it’s not easy.”
Anna Lou Dehavenon, an urban anthropologist, was documenting
the lives of women living in a Bronx homeless shelter in the 1980s when she had
She had just determined that the median age of women at the shelter was 26, and
that the median number of children of the women was 2, when she suddenly
remembered the day her own life was turned upside down — when she, too, was 26
and the mother of two.
It was Oct. 29, 1953, the day her husband, William Kapell, one of his
generation’s most brilliant pianists, died in a plane crash at the age of 31. He
was returning to the United States from a tour of Australia when the plane
struck King’s Mountain south of San Francisco, killing all 19 on board.
Mr. Kapell, who had spent a small fortune transporting his chosen pianos to
concerts, left his widow little. And she, having dropped her own career as a
promising pianist to raise a family, found herself with no income and no college
degree. If she wasn’t exactly homeless, she was the closest thing to it.
At the Bronx shelter, Dr. Dehavenon saw how much she had in common with the
women she was studying, and how her own experience had motivated her choice of
“I’m thinking, my God, that’s one of the reasons I’m so concerned,” she said in
an interview with The New York Times in 2005. “Freud would have had a wonderful
time with it. Subconsciously, my own experience fed into it.”
With help, she rebuilt her life and went on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology,
becoming a respected authority on poverty, hunger and homelessness in New York
City. She died at 85 on Tuesday at a nursing home in Greenport, on Long Island,
her son David Kapell said.
Dr. Dehavenon’s influence came from the strength of the statistics and empirical
observations she collected as an urban anthropologist doing studies for private
social welfare groups. Her reports were read closely by government agencies,
judicial officials and the news media, and her research influenced a 1979
landmark ruling that affirmed a right to shelter in New York City.
She was as much an advocate as she was an observer. One organization she started
was called the Action Research Project on Hunger.
“Are people starving?” Dr. Dehavenon asked rhetorically in 1988. “I don’t really
use that kind of language. We can’t ever see hunger, because it’s a subjective
experience. But we can build a case inferring that people here are suffering
from hunger, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Starting in 1978, Dr. Dehavenon produced annual studies on hunger for the East
Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee, an alliance of seven religious, voluntary
organizations she helped form. She had been raised a Presbyterian and embraced
Using social science research techniques, Dr. Dehavenon found that more and more
Harlem residents went hungry each year, some of them relying on what they could
steal, others sifting through garbage to feed their families.
She traced the causes to cuts in federal assistance and an eagerness by New York
City officials to bump people from public assistance rolls. She titled her 1985
report “The Tyranny of Indifference.”
Dr. Dehavenon focused increasingly on homelessness as the problem surged in the
1980s. Her analyses contributed to the litigation in a class-action suit brought
by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of a group of homeless families. It led to
the ruling, by a State Supreme Court justice, ordering New York City to provide
shelter to all homeless families.
“In the society’s court papers, she recounted her weekly observations of case
after case of families who had been left without shelter,” said Jane Bock,
senior staff attorney for the society’s Homeless Rights Project. Dr. Dehavenon’s
expert testimony about families living in filth led to contempt rulings against
the city, Ms. Bock said.
When the Community Service Society presented Dr. Dehavenon with its highest
award in 1990, it said, “Her research has been instrumental in forcing critical
changes in social policy in New York City.”
Rebecca Ann Lou Melson was born on Nov. 24, 1926, in Bellingham, Wash., and soon
showed a gift for the piano. After two years at Reed College in Portland, Ore.,
she moved to Chicago to study at DePaul University with Sergei Tarnovsky, who
had taught Vladimir Horowitz in Russia. She met Mr. Kapell when he performed in
Chicago, and they married in 1948.
After Mr. Kapell’s death, family friends helped her find an apartment. She met
Gaston T. de Havenon, an art dealer, and married him in 1955. (She adopted a
slightly different rendering of the surname.) They had two children, and with
his two children from an earlier marriage and her two with Mr. Kapell, she acted
as mother for six. She divorced Mr. de Havenon in 1974, having grown bored with
being a homemaker, she told The Times.
At 40, she started taking classes at Columbia University’s School of General
Studies. One teacher, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, who was known for
finding practical explanations for human behavior, had students videotape the
behavior of a range of people, from garbage collectors to the Macy’s Santa
Ms. Dehavenon continued to use videotape in her doctoral studies of hunger,
recording the behavior of families, in some cases as they ran out of food. She
spoke of being moved by an unemployed father in East Harlem who had borrowed $10
from his sister and spent three days comparing prices before buying a
After receiving her doctorate in 1978, she taught on and off at both the Mount
Sinai School of Medicine and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine throughout
Besides her son David, she is survived by another son, Alexander; her daughters
Rebecca Ellen Kapell Leigh and Sarah Alicia de Havenon Fowler; her stepsons
Michael and Andre, and 10 grandchildren.
Dr. Dehavenon strove to keep Mr. Kapell’s memory alive by helping to publish his
diaries and issue new recordings of his music. In one instance, by a circuitous
route, she unexpectedly received CD copies of some forgotten acetate-disc
recordings of Mr. Kapell’s last concerts, performed in Australia in 1953. A
Melbourne department store salesman, who had since died, had recorded them from
The found music led to the release in 2008 of the two-disc album “Kapell
Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts,” by Sony BMG Masterworks.
In a 2004 radio interview in Australia, Dr. Dehavenon said she still got goose
flesh when she heard Mr. Kapell’s music. There are times, she said, “when music
can speak but words can’t speak.”
The New York Times
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
ANGELES — Lewis Brown, a high school and college basketball prodigy who spent
the past 10 years living on a sidewalk in Hollywood, seemed on the verge of a
second chance. He had scraped enough money together to get a California
identification card so he could fly to visit a sister in New York who had
thought him dead. Friends said that he would finally get off the street.
That was on Tuesday. But Wednesday, around 6 a.m., Mr. Brown, breathless and
frantic, was pleading for someone to call an ambulance. By the time help
arrived, Mr. Brown — 300 pounds, 6 feet 11 inches — was lying on the ground. A
half-hour of efforts by four paramedics — as his neighborhood friends shouted:
“Come on, Big Lew! You can make it” — could not save him.
For Mr. Brown — a star high school center who once seemed destined for a spot in
the N.B.A. — all that was left on Thursday was a Staples shopping cart carrying
a few of his possessions: a pair of sneakers, a blanket, a laminated copy of a
New York Times article from this year that detailed his sad story of decline,
bitterness, drug arrests and missed opportunities. The remainder of his
belongings — a mattress, some tattered clothes — had been put into a Dumpster.
Throughout the day, people who had known Mr. Brown, 56, from the neighborhood,
where he would wash windows and talk about his lost basketball past in Compton
and at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, stopped as they learned of his
death. Tony Chauncey, a Time Warner Cable worker, said he had seen him last
month and told him that he was going to a hospital to be checked for a
reappearance of cancer.
“We hugged,” Mr. Chauncey said. “He said: ‘I’m giving you my healing prayer. You
are going to be O.K.” Two weeks later, Mr. Chauncey said, he learned that he was
free of cancer. “His last words to me were: ‘See. I told you I’m a spiritual
man. Now give me $3!’ ”
Michael Kaiping, who works at a special effects rental company on the block
where Mr. Brown lived, said Mr. Brown told him two weeks ago that he had raised
most of the money toward his ID card so he could visit his sister, Anita, and
asked to borrow $11.
“Lewis said his sister told him she needs him,” Mr. Kaiping said. “I always
thought it would be very good for him to get off the streets.”
“I didn’t mind throwing him a few bucks,” he said. “He had every intention of
giving me back that $11.”
Stephen Turner, who played basketball with Mr. Brown in Compton and recognized
him washing windows at a gas station last year, said he would try to organize a
Mr. Brown was long estranged from his family, though his mother had said, upon
learning from a Times reporter that he was alive, that she wanted to see him
before she died. Mr. Turner said the two had spoken by phone but she had not had
a chance to see him in person before his sudden death.
A second sister, Jeri, who lives in Compton, had not had seen him after he
resurfaced. “I pray for the best outcome for my brother,” she said after
learning of his death. “God’s will is done.”
LOS ANGELES — Every day, Diane Butler and her husband park their two
hand-painted R.V.’s in a lot at the edge of Venice Beach here, alongside dozens
of other rickety, rusted campers from the 1970s and ’80s. During the day, she
sells her artwork on the boardwalk. When the parking lot closes at sunset, she
and the other R.V.-dwellers drive a quarter-mile inland to find somewhere on the
street to park for the night.
Their nomadic existence might be ending, though. The Venice section of Los
Angeles has become the latest California community to enact strict new
regulations limiting street parking and banning R.V.’s from beach lots —
regulations that could soon force Ms. Butler, 58, to leave the community where
she has lived for four decades.
“They’re making it hard for people in vehicles to remain in Venice,” she said.
Southern California, with its forgiving weather, has long been a popular
destination for those living in vehicles and other homeless people. And for
decades, people living in R.V.’s, vans and cars have settled in Venice, the
beachfront Los Angeles community once known as the “Slum by the Sea” and famous
for its offbeat, artistic culture.
Yet even as the economic downturn has forced more people out of their homes and
into their cars, vehicle-dwellers are facing fewer options, with more
communities trying to push them out.
As nearby neighborhoods and municipalities passed laws restricting overnight
parking in recent years, Venice became the center of vehicle dwelling in the
region. More than 250 vehicles now serve as shelter on Venice streets, according
to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“The only place between Santa Barbara and San Diego where campers can park seven
blocks from the beach is this little piece of land,” said City Councilman Bill
Rosendahl, whose district includes Venice. “Over the years, it’s only gotten
worse, as every other community along the coast has adopted restrictions.”
In the past, bohemian Venice was tolerant of vehicle-dwellers, but,
increasingly, the proliferation of R.V.’s in this gentrifying neighborhood has
prompted efforts to remove them.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” said Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice
Stakeholders Association, a group of residents devoted to removing R.V.’s from
the area. “It’s time to give us some relief from R.V.’s parking on our
A bitter debate has raged between residents who want to get rid of R.V.’s and
those who want to combat the problems of homelessness in the community by
offering safe places to park and access to public bathrooms. Last year,
residents voted to establish overnight parking restrictions, but the California
Coastal Commission twice vetoed the plan.
However, a recent incident involving an R.V. owner’s arrest on charges of
dumping sewage into the street has accelerated efforts to remove
vehicle-dwellers. Starting this week, oversize vehicles will be banned from the
beach parking lots; an ordinance banning them from parking on the street
overnight could take effect within a month.
While Mr. Rosendahl supported parking restrictions, he has also secured $750,000
from the city to pay for a pilot program to house R.V.-dwellers. Modeled after
efforts in Santa Barbara and Eugene, Ore., the Vehicles to Homes program will
offer overnight parking for vehicle-dwellers who agree to meet certain
conditions, with the goal of moving participants into permanent housing.
“For people who want help, we’ll support them,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “The others
can take their wheels and go up the coast or somewhere else, God bless them.
It’s not our responsibility to be the only spot where near-homelessness is dealt
with in the state of California.”
While some have expressed interest in the program, many said they did not want
to subject themselves to curfews and oversight or had no means or desire to
return to renting. Mr. Ryavec believes few will participate.
“I will not debate that some people are mentally ill, indigent or drugged out,”
Mr. Ryavec said. “But my stance is that the bulk of these people are making a
Still, according to Gary L. Blasi, a law professor at the University of
California, Los Angeles, and an activist on homeless issues, most people choose
to live in vehicles only when the alternative is sleeping in a shelter or on the
“The idea of carefree vagabonds is statistically false,” Professor Blasi said.
“More often, these are people who lived in apartments in Venice before they
lived in R.V.’s. The reason for losing housing is usually the loss of a job or
some health care crisis.”
Even if all the vehicle-dwellers in Venice wanted to participate, the pilot
program will accommodate only a small fraction of them. In Southern California,
though, there may not be anywhere else R.V.’s can legally park. According to
Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless,
ordinances banning R.V.’s have spread from metropolitan areas into the suburbs
as vehicle-dwellers venture farther afield in search of somewhere to sleep.
“Communities are now forming a patchwork of ordinances, which virtually
prohibits a geographic cure to the situation,” Mr. Donovan said. “If you’re in a
community and they tell you to leave, you can’t just go to the next community,
because they establish similar ordinances, especially in California.”
Mr. Donovan said vehicle-dwellers often end up on the street after their
vehicles are towed or become inoperable. When his organization surveyed tent
camps in California, they found that many residents had come from R.V.’s.
Vehicle-dwellers in Venice are now considering their options, but few expressed
any intention of leaving.
“They can keep throwing more laws at us, but we’re not just going to go away,”
said Mario Manti-Gualtiero, who lost his job as an audio engineer and now lives
in an R.V. “We can’t just evaporate.”
September 28, 2010
The New York Times
By JOSEPH BERGER
The shopping carts are lined up hours early in Tompkins Square Park, not far
from the dog run, where the East Village’s more genteel residents are unleashing
retrievers and beagles and chatting animatedly. The poor or elderly waiting on
benches to get the free food that comes with a dose of the Gospel seem more lost
in their own thoughts, even though many meet every Tuesday.
A guard, Mike Luke, a powerhouse known as Big Mike who himself was a consumer at
church pantries until he found religion and decided to work for “the man
upstairs,” manages the crowd with crisp authority until the 11 a.m. service
starts across the street at the Tompkins Square Gospel Fellowship. There is
nervous tension because only the first 50 will get in, and suddenly two women
are squabbling over a black cart.
“How do you know that’s your cart?” Big Mike firmly asks one, a fair question
since the carts look alike. But the mystery is cleared up with the discovery of
an orphaned gray cart.
Inside the worship hall, the 50 men and women sit in neat rows in front of a
pulpit and a painting of a generic waterfall while a pianist softly plays hymns.
Their carts are reassembled in neat rows as well.
The room has the shopworn air of Sergeant Sarah Brown’s Save-a-Soul Mission in
“Guys and Dolls.” One almost expects Stubby Kaye to get up and sing “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” But people don’t mind having to sit through a sermon
as the price of admission, and few have jobs they need to run to. While they
wait, volunteers fill each cart with a couple of bread loaves — redolent of a
Gospel miracle, except these are ciabatta and 10-grain — a couple of bananas, a
couple of less-than-freshly-picked ears of corn, a box of eggs, a box of
blueberries, even an Asian pear.
The food is donated by Trader Joe’s, the gourmet and organic food purveyor,
which has a store nearby. It usually feeds the kinds of professionals who use
the dog run, but it provides the fellowship with a wealth of unsold baked goods,
fruit and vegetables.
The fellowship was started 115 years ago as a mission to the immigrant Jews of
the Lower East Side but now mostly serves the black, Latino and Asian poor. The
East Village has several other pantries that dispense food without sermons;
their food is government-financed and so must be religion-free. The fellowship
started its giveaways in January and now feeds 250 people during three services
on Tuesdays — one in Chinese — and a single evening service on Sundays and
The mission is run by the Rev. Bill Jones, a lively ordained Baptist minister
from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
“People are not only hungry for food, but hungry for the word of God,” Mr. Jones
said. “There’s not just a physical need but a spiritual need.”
Nevertheless, he is aware of the actual hunger. “If you wait for three hours to
get $25 worth of groceries,” he said, “you have a need.”
He affirms that thought to the waiting crowd in a stentorian drawl.
“You all get blueberries today,” he announces. “Some of you get eggs. If you
don’t get eggs, don’t be upset. You neighbor is getting eggs, so be grateful.”
The people who come include Rafael Mercado, 52, who lost his job as a mailroom
clerk four years ago.
“I don’t have the kind of money now to go shopping,” he said, “so I go to many
pantries.” Another is Asia Feliciano, 37, a single mother with a lush head of
cornrow braids. She and her sons, Trevor, 5, and Jordan, 3, live in a nearby
shelter, and they stumbled upon the mission in August while panhandling.
“It puts food on our plates every night,” she said.
Mr. Jones begins the service with a prayer — “Heavenly father, we are so
grateful for the provisions you have brought us for another day.” He then offers
a lesson from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus tells the disciples to love one
another. With ardor that is not quite brimstone, Mr. Jones urges listeners to
love one another as well, not give in to temptations and pray to remain faithful
Many among the 50 sit stone-faced. But some clearly listen. Though she comes
mostly for the food, Ms. Feliciano indicates that the worship has subversively
“When I have to sit through the service, it opens my eyes,” she said. “So I
started reading the Bible and I asked them for a Bible, and they gave me one.”
September 11, 2010
The New York Times
By MICHAEL LUO
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For a few hours at the mall here this month, Nick
Griffith, his wife, Lacey Lennon, and their two young children got to feel like
a regular family again.
Never mind that they were just killing time away from the homeless shelter where
they are staying, or that they had to take two city buses to get to the shopping
center because they pawned one car earlier this year and had another
repossessed, or that the debit card Ms. Lennon inserted into the A.T.M. was
courtesy of the state’s welfare program.
They ate lunch at the food court, browsed for clothes and just strolled,
blending in with everyone else out on a scorching hot summer day. “It’s exactly
why we come here,” Ms. Lennon said. “It reminds us of our old life.”
For millions who have lost jobs or faced eviction in the economic downturn,
homelessness is perhaps the darkest fear of all. In the end, though, for all the
devastation wrought by the recession, a vast majority of people who have faced
the possibility have somehow managed to avoid it.
Nevertheless, from 2007 through 2009, the number of families in homeless
shelters — households with at least one adult and one minor child — leapt to
170,000 from 131,000, according to the Department of Housing and Urban
With long-term unemployment ballooning, those numbers could easily climb this
year. Late in 2009, however, states began distributing $1.5 billion that has
been made available over three years by the federal government as part of the
stimulus package for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which
provides financial assistance to keep people in their homes or get them back in
one quickly if they lose them.
More than 550,000 people have received aid, including more than 1,800 in Rhode
Island, with just over a quarter of the money for the program spent so far
nationally, state and federal officials said.
Even so, it remains to be seen whether the program is keeping pace with the
continuing economic hardship.
On Aug. 9, Mr. Griffith, 40, Ms. Lennon, 26, and their two children, Ava, 3, and
Ethan, 16 months, staggered into Crossroads Rhode Island, a shelter that
functions as a kind of processing and triage center for homeless families, after
a three-day bus journey from Florida.
“It hit me when we got off the bus and walked up and saw the Crossroads
building,” Ms. Lennon said. “We had all our stuff. We were tired. We’d already
had enough, and it was just starting.”
The number of families who have sought help this year at Crossroads has already
surpassed the total for all of 2009. Through July, 324 families had come needing
shelter, compared with 278 all of last year.
National data on current shelter populations are not yet available, but checks
with other major family shelters across the country found similar increases.
The Y.W.C.A. Family Center in Columbus, Ohio, one of the largest family shelters
in the state, has seen an occupancy increase of more than 20 percent over the
last three months compared with the same period last year. The UMOM New Day
Center in Phoenix, the largest family shelter in Arizona, has had a more than 30
percent increase in families calling for shelter over the last few months.
Without national data, it is impossible to say for certain whether these are
anomalies. Clearly, however, many families are still being sucked into the
swirling financial drain that leads to homelessness.
The Griffith family moved from Rhode Island to Florida two years ago after Mr.
Griffith, who was working as a waiter at an Applebee’s restaurant, asked to be
transferred to one opening in Spring Hill, an hour north of Tampa, where he
figured the cost of living would be lower.
He did well at first, earning as much as $25 an hour, including tips. He also
got a job as a line cook at another restaurant, where he made $12 an hour.
The family eventually moved into a three-bedroom condominium and lived the
typical suburban life, with a sport-utility vehicle and a minivan to cart around
their growing family.
In January, however, the restaurant where Mr. Griffith was cooking closed. Then
his hours began drying up at Applebee’s. The couple had savings, but squandered
some of it figuring he would quickly find another job. When he did not, they
were evicted from their condo.
They lived with Ms. Lennon’s mother at first in her one-bedroom house in Port
Richey, Fla., but she made it clear after two months that the arrangement was no
longer feasible. The family moved to an R.V. park, paying $186 a week plus
utilities. By late July, however, they had mostly run out of options.
They called some 100 shelters in Florida and found that most were full; others
would not allow them to stay together.
They considered returning to Rhode Island. An Applebee’s in Smithfield agreed to
hire Mr. Griffith. They found Crossroads on the Internet and were assured of a
spot. Using some emergency money they had left and $150 lent by relatives, they
bought bus tickets to Providence.
Now, the family is crammed into a single room at Crossroads’ 15-room family
shelter, which used to be a funeral home. All four sleep on a pair of single
beds pushed together. There is a crib for Ethan, but with all the turmoil, he
can now fall asleep only when next to his parents. A lone framed photograph of
the couple, dressed up for a night out, sits atop a shelf.
The living conditions are only part of the adjustment; there is also the
shelter’s long list of rules. No one can be in the living quarters from 10 a.m.
to 4:30 p.m. The news is even off-limits as television programming in the common
area. Residents were recently barred from congregating around the bench outside.
Infractions bring write-ups; three write-ups bring expulsion.
The changes have taken a toll on the family in small and large ways. Ethan has
taken to screaming for no reason. Ava had been on the verge of being
potty-trained, but is now back to diapers. Their nap schedules and diets are a
mess. Their parents are squabbling more and have started smoking again.
Mr. Griffith found that he could work only limited hours at his new job because
of the bus schedule. The family did qualify last week for transitional housing,
but that usually takes a month to finalize. They are still pursuing rapid
Others at the shelter with no job prospects face a steeper climb meeting the
Every few days, new families arrive. A few hours after the Griffiths got back
from the mall, a young woman pushing a stroller with a toddler rang the shelter
doorbell, quietly weeping.
January 3, 2010
The New York Times
By JASON DEPARLE
and ROBERT M. GEBELOFF
CAPE CORAL, Fla. — After an improbable rise from the Bronx projects to a job
selling Gulf Coast homes, Isabel Bermudez lost it all to an epic housing bust —
the six-figure income, the house with the pool and the investment property.
Now, as she papers the county with résumés and girds herself for rejection, she
is supporting two daughters on an income that inspires a double take: zero
dollars in monthly cash and a few hundred dollars in food stamps.
With food-stamp use at a record high and surging by the day, Ms. Bermudez
belongs to an overlooked subgroup that is growing especially fast: recipients
with no cash income.
About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other
income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times.
In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they
described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid — no welfare, no
unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.
Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it
harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent
over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with
a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.
“It’s the one thing I can count on every month — I know the children are going
to have food,” Ms. Bermudez, 42, said with the forced good cheer she mastered
selling rows of new stucco homes.
Members of this straitened group range from displaced strivers like Ms. Bermudez
to weathered men who sleep in shelters and barter cigarettes. Some draw on
savings or sporadic under-the-table jobs. Some move in with relatives. Some get
noncash help, like subsidized apartments. While some go without cash incomes
only briefly before securing jobs or aid, others rely on food stamps alone for
The surge in this precarious way of life has been so swift that few policy
makers have noticed. But it attests to the growing role of food stamps within
the safety net. One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one
in four children.
Here in Florida, the number of people with no income beyond food stamps has
doubled in two years and has more than tripled along once-thriving parts of the
southwest coast. The building frenzy that lured Ms. Bermudez to Fort Myers and
neighboring Cape Coral has left a wasteland of foreclosed homes and written new
tales of descent into star-crossed indigence.
A skinny fellow in saggy clothes who spent his childhood in foster care, Rex
Britton, 22, hopped a bus from Syracuse two years ago for a job painting parking
lots. Now, with unemployment at nearly 14 percent and paving work scarce, he
receives $200 a month in food stamps and stays with a girlfriend who survives on
a rent subsidy and a government check to help her care for her disabled toddler.
“Without food stamps we’d probably be starving,” Mr. Britton said.
A strapping man who once made a living throwing fastballs, William Trapani, 53,
left his dreams on the minor league mound and his front teeth in prison, where
he spent nine years for selling cocaine. Now he sleeps at a rescue mission,
repairs bicycles for small change, and counts $200 in food stamps as his only
“I’ve been out looking for work every day — there’s absolutely nothing,” he
A grandmother whose voice mail message urges callers to “have a blessed good
day,” Wanda Debnam, 53, once drove 18-wheelers and dreamed of selling real
estate. But she lost her job at Starbucks this year and moved in with her son in
nearby Lehigh Acres. Now she sleeps with her 8-year-old granddaughter under a
poster of the Jonas Brothers and uses her food stamps to avoid her
“I’m climbing the walls,” Ms. Debnam said.
Florida officials have done a better job than most in monitoring the rise of
people with no cash income. They say the access to food stamps shows the safety
net is working.
“The program is doing what it was designed to do: help very needy people get
through a very difficult time,” said Don Winstead, deputy secretary for the
Department of Children and Families. “But for this program they would be in even
more dire straits.”
But others say the lack of cash support shows the safety net is torn. The main
cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has scarcely
expanded during the recession; the rolls are still down about 75 percent from
their 1990s peak. A different program, unemployment insurance, has rapidly
grown, but still omits nearly half the unemployed. Food stamps, easier to get,
have become the safety net of last resort.
“The food-stamp program is being asked to do too much,” said James Weill,
president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group.
“People need income support.”
Food stamps, officially the called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,
have taken on a greater role in the safety net for several reasons. Since the
benefit buys only food, it draws less suspicion of abuse than cash aid and more
political support. And the federal government pays for the whole benefit, giving
states reason to maximize enrollment. States typically share in other programs’
The Times collected income data on food-stamp recipients in 31 states, which
account for about 60 percent of the national caseload. On average, 18 percent
listed cash income of zero in their most recent monthly filings. Projected over
the entire caseload, that suggests six million people in households with no
income. About 1.2 million are children.
The numbers have nearly tripled in Nevada over the past two years, doubled in
Florida and New York, and grown nearly 90 percent in Minnesota and Utah. In
Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, one of every 25 residents reports
an income of only food stamps. In Yakima County, Wash., the figure is about one
of every 17.
Experts caution that these numbers are estimates. Recipients typically report a
small rise in earnings just once every six months, so some people listed as
jobless may have recently found some work. New York officials say their numbers
include some households with earnings from illegal immigrants, who cannot get
food stamps but sometimes live with relatives who do.
Still, there is little doubt that millions of people are relying on incomes of
food stamps alone, and their numbers are rapidly growing. “This is a reflection
of the hardship that a lot of people in our state are facing; I think that is
without question,” said Mr. Winstead, the Florida official.
With their condition mostly overlooked, there is little data on how long these
households go without cash incomes or what other resources they have. But they
appear an eclectic lot. Florida data shows the population about evenly split
between families with children and households with just adults, with the latter
group growing fastest during the recession. They are racially mixed as well —
about 42 percent white, 32 percent black, and 22 percent Latino — with the
growth fastest among whites during the recession.
The expansion of the food-stamp program, which will spend more than $60 billion
this year, has so far enjoyed bipartisan support. But it does have conservative
critics who worry about the costs and the rise in dependency.
“This is craziness,” said Representative John Linder, a Georgia Republican who
is the ranking minority member of a House panel on welfare policy. “We’re at
risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable
getting by living off the government.”
Mr. Linder added: “You don’t improve the economy by paying people to sit around
and not work. You improve the economy by lowering taxes” so small businesses
will create more jobs.
With nearly 15,000 people in Lee County, Fla., reporting no income but food
stamps, the Fort Myers area is a laboratory of inventive survival. When Rhonda
Navarro, a cancer patient with a young son, lost running water, she ran a hose
from an outdoor spigot that was still working into the shower stall. Mr.
Britton, the jobless parking lot painter, sold his blood.
Kevin Zirulo and Diane Marshall, brother and sister, have more unlikely stories
than a reality television show. With a third sibling paying their rent, they are
living on a food-stamp benefit of $300 a month. A gun collector covered in
patriotic tattoos, Mr. Zirulo, 31, has sold off two semiautomatic rifles and a
revolver. Ms. Marshall, who has a 7-year-old daughter, scavenges discarded
furniture to sell on the Internet.
They said they dropped out of community college and diverted student aid to
household expenses. They received $150 from the Nielsen Company, which monitors
their television. They grew so desperate this month, they put the breeding
services of the family Chihuahua up for bid on Craigslist.
“We look at each other all the time and say we don’t know how we get through,”
Ms. Marshall said.
Ms. Bermudez, by contrast, tells what until the recession seemed a storybook
tale. Raised in the Bronx by a drug-addicted mother, she landed a clerical job
at a Manhattan real estate firm and heard that Fort Myers was booming. On a
quick scouting trip in 2002, she got a mortgage on easy terms for a $120,000
home with three bedrooms and a two-car garage. The developer called the floor
“I screamed, I cried,” she said. “I took so much pride in that house.”
Jobs were as plentiful as credit. Working for two large builders, she quickly
moved from clerical jobs to sales and bought an investment home. Her income
soared to $180,000, and she kept the pay stubs to prove it. By the time the glut
set in and she lost her job, the teaser rates on her mortgages had expired and
her monthly payments soared.
She landed a few short-lived jobs as the industry imploded, exhausted her
unemployment insurance and spent all her savings. But without steady work in
nearly three years, she could not stay afloat. In January, the bank foreclosed
One morning as the eviction deadline approached, Ms. Bermudez woke up without
enough food to get through the day. She got emergency supplies at a food pantry
for her daughters, Tiffany, now 17, and Ashley, 4, and signed up for food
stamps. “My mother lived off the government,” she said. “It wasn’t something as
a proud working woman I wanted to do.”
For most of the year, she did have a $600 government check to help her care for
Ashley, who has a developmental disability. But she lost it after she was
hospitalized and missed an appointment to verify the child’s continued
eligibility. While she is trying to get it restored, her sole income now is $320
in food stamps.
Ms. Bermudez recently answered the door in her best business clothes and handed
a reporter her résumé, which she distributes by the ream. It notes she was once
a “million-dollar producer” and “deals well with the unexpected.”
“I went from making $180,000 to relying on food stamps,” she said. “Without that
government program, I wouldn’t be able to feed my children.”
November 29, 2009
The New York Times
By JASON DePARLE and ROBERT GEBELOFF
MARTINSVILLE, Ohio — With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every
month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in
eight Americans and one in four children.
It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as
ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous
plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters
in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.
Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their
eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They
include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the
chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose
reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.
While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in
better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s
stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it
easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from
the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress
enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.
From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering
Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.
There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the
population receives food stamps, according to an analysis of local data
collected by The New York Times.
The counties are as big as the Bronx and Philadelphia and as small as Owsley
County in Kentucky, a patch of Appalachian distress where half of the 4,600
residents receive food stamps.
In more than 750 counties, the program helps feed one in three blacks. In more
than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children. In the Mississippi River
cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, half of the children or more
receive food stamps. Even in Peoria, Ill. — Everytown, U.S.A. — nearly 40
percent of children receive aid.
While use is greatest where poverty runs deep, the growth has been especially
swift in once-prosperous places hit by the housing bust. There are about 50
small counties and a dozen sizable ones where the rolls have doubled in the last
two years. In another 205 counties, they have risen by at least two-thirds.
These places with soaring rolls include populous Riverside County, Calif., most
of greater Phoenix and Las Vegas, a ring of affluent Atlanta suburbs, and a
150-mile stretch of southwest Florida from Bradenton to the Everglades.
Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who
oversees it would like it to grow even faster.
“I think the response of the program has been tremendous,” said Kevin Concannon,
an under secretary of agriculture, “but we’re mindful that there are another 15,
16 million who could benefit.”
Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates
ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri.
Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a
recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent
access to adequate food.
“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the
exception of the Depression,” he said. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact
that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”
The program’s growing reach can be seen in a corner of southwestern Ohio where
red state politics reign and blue-collar workers have often called food stamps a
sign of laziness. But unemployment has soared, and food stamp use in a
six-county area outside Cincinnati has risen more than 50 percent.
With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation
electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job.
He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a
chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses
went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five
He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to
work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When
an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who
is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents.
“I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like
we really needed the help right now.”
The outreach worker is a telltale sign. Like many states, Ohio has campaigned
hard to raise the share of eligible people collecting benefits, which are
financed entirely by the federal government and brought the state about $2.2
billion last year.
By contrast, in the federal cash welfare program, states until recently bore the
entire cost of caseload growth, and nationally the rolls have stayed virtually
flat. Unemployment insurance, despite rapid growth, reaches about only half the
jobless (and replaces about half their income), making food stamps the only aid
many people can get — the safety net’s safety net.
Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when
critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and
sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill
Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor.
President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has
The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most
people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program, or SNAP.
By the time the recession began, in December 2007, “the whole message around
this program had changed,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities, a Washington group that has supported food stamp expansions. “The
general pitch was, ‘This program is here to help you.’ ”
Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid — 28 percent of blacks, 15
percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month
for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.
In the promotion of the program, critics see a sleight of hand.
“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s
really not different from cash welfare,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage
Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill.
“Food stamps is quasi money.”
Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps
should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance.
“The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on
poverty,” he said.
Suburbs Are Hit Hard
Across the country, the food stamp rolls can be read like a scan of a sick
economy. The counties of northwest Ohio, where car parts are made, take sick
when Detroit falls ill. Food stamp use is up by about 60 percent in Erie County
(vibration controls), 77 percent in Wood County (floor mats) and 84 percent in
hard-hit Van Wert (shifting components and cooling fans).
Just west, in Indiana, Elkhart County makes the majority of the nation’s
recreational vehicles. Sales have fallen more than half during the recession,
and nearly 30 percent of the county’s children are receiving food stamps.
The pox in southwest Florida is the housing bust, with foreclosure rates in Fort
Myers often leading the nation in the last two years. Across six contiguous
counties from Manatee to Monroe, the food stamp rolls have more than doubled.
In sheer numbers, growth has come about equally from places where food stamp use
was common and places where it was rare. Since 2007, the 600 counties with the
highest percentage of people on the rolls added 1.3 million new recipients. So
did the 600 counties where use was lowest.
The richest counties are often where aid is growing fastest, although from a
small base. In 2007, Forsyth County, outside Atlanta, had the highest household
income in the South. (One author dubbed it “Whitopia.”) Food stamp use there has
more than doubled.
This is the first recession in which a majority of the poor in metropolitan
areas live in the suburbs, giving food stamps new prominence there. Use has
grown by half or more in dozens of suburban counties from Boston to Seattle,
including such bulwarks of modern conservatism as California’s Orange County,
where the rolls are up more than 50 percent.
While food stamp use is still the exception in places like Orange County (where
4 percent of the population get food aid), the program reaches deep in places of
chronic poverty. It feeds half the people in stretches of white Appalachia, in a
Yupik-speaking region of Alaska and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in
Across the 10 core counties of the Mississippi Delta, 45 percent of black
residents receive aid. In a city as big as St. Louis, the share is 60 percent.
Use among children is especially high. A third of the children in Louisiana,
Missouri and Tennessee receive food aid. In the Bronx, the rate is 46 percent.
In East Carroll Parish, La., three-quarters of the children receive food stamps.
A recent study by Mark R. Rank, a professor at Washington University in St.
Louis, startled some policy makers in finding that half of Americans receive
food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children,
the figure was 90 percent.
Need Overcomes Scorn
Across the small towns and rolling farmland outside Cincinnati, old disdain for
the program has collided with new needs. Warren County, the second-richest in
Ohio, is so averse to government aid that it turned down a federal stimulus
grant. But the market for its high-end suburban homes has sagged, people who
build them are idle and food stamp use has doubled.
Next door, in Clinton County, the blow has been worse. DHL, the international
package carrier, has closed most of its giant airfield, costing the county its
biggest employer and about 7,500 jobs. The county unemployment rate nearly
tripled, to more than 14 percent.
“We’re seeing people getting food stamps who never thought they’d get them,”
said Tina Osso, the director of the Shared Harvest Food Bank in Fairfield, which
runs an outreach program in five area counties.
While Mr. Dawson, the electrician, has kept his job, the drive to distant work
sites has doubled his gas bill, food prices rose sharply last year and his
health insurance premiums have soared. His monthly expenses have risen by about
$400, and the elimination of overtime has cost him $200 a month. Food stamps
help fill the gap.
Like many new beneficiaries here, Mr. Dawson argues that people often abuse the
program and is quick to say he is different. While some people “choose not to
get married, just so they can apply for benefits,” he is a married, churchgoing
man who works and owns his home. While “some people put piles of steaks in their
carts,” he will not use the government’s money for luxuries like coffee or soda.
“To me, that’s just morally wrong,” he said.
He has noticed crowds of midnight shoppers once a month when benefits get
renewed. While policy analysts, spotting similar crowds nationwide, have called
them a sign of increased hunger, he sees idleness. “Generally, if you’re up at
that hour and not working, what are you into?” he said.
Still, the program has filled the Dawsons’ home with fresh fruit, vegetables,
bread and meat, and something they had not fully expected — an enormous sense of
relief. “I know if I run out of milk, I could run down to the gas station,” said
Mr. Dawson’s wife, Sheila.
As others here tell it, that is a benefit not to be overlooked.
Sarah and Tyrone Mangold started the year on track to make $70,000 — she was
selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning
crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Together they
had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children, including one
with a neurological disorder aggravated by poor nutrition.
They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured
the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night
over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to
“We were being really snippy, having anxiety attacks,” Ms. Mangold said. “People
get irritable when they’re hungry.”
Food stamps now fortify the family income by $623 a month, and Mr. Mangold, who
is still patching together odd jobs, no longer objects.
“I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps
me know I can feed my kids.”
So far, few elected officials have objected to the program’s growth. Almost 90
percent of beneficiaries nationwide live below the poverty line (about $22,000 a
year for a family of four). But a minor tempest hit Ohio’s Warren County after a
woman drove to the food stamp office in a Mercedes-Benz and word spread that she
owned a $300,000 home loan-free. Since Ohio ignores the value of houses and
cars, she qualified.
“I’m a hard-core conservative Republican guy — I found that appalling,” said
Dave Young, a member of the county board of commissioners, which briefly
threatened to withdraw from the federal program.
“As soon as people figure out they can vote representatives in to give them
benefits, that’s the end of democracy,” Mr. Young said. “More and more people
will be taking, and fewer will be producing.”
At the same time, the recession left Sandi Bernstein more sympathetic to the
needy. After years of success in the insurance business, Ms. Bernstein, 66, had
just settled into what she had expected to be a comfortable retirement when the
financial crisis last year sent her brokerage accounts plummeting. Feeling newly
vulnerable herself, she volunteered with an outreach program run by AARP and the
Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks.
Having assumed that poor people clamored for aid, she was surprised to find that
some needed convincing to apply.“I come here and I see people who are
knowledgeable, normal, well-spoken, well-dressed,” she said. “These are people I
could be having lunch with.”
That could describe Franny and Shawn Wardlow, whose house in nearby Oregonia
conjures middle-American stability rather than the struggle to meet basic needs.
Their three daughters have heads of neat blond hair, pink bedroom curtains and a
turtle bought in better times on vacation in Daytona Beach, Fla. One wrote a
fourth-grade story about her parents that concluded “They lived happily ever
Ms. Wardlow, who worked at a nursing home, lost her job first. Soon after, Mr.
Wardlow was laid off from the construction job he had held for nearly nine
years. As Ms. Wardlow tells the story of the subsequent fall — cutoff threats
from the power company, the dinners of egg noodles, the soap from the Salvation
Army — she dwells on one unlikely symbol of the security she lost.
“I was raised on eating pot roast,” she said. “Just a nice decent meal.”
Mr. Wardlow, 32, is a strapping man with a friendly air. He talked his way into
a job at an envelope factory although his boss said he was overqualified. But it
pays less than what he made muscling a jackhammer, and with Ms. Wardlow still
jobless, they are two months behind on the rent. A monthly food stamp benefit of
$429 fills the shelves and puts an occasional roast on the Sunday table.
It reminds Ms. Wardlow of what she has lost, and what she hopes to regain.
“I would consider us middle class at one time,” she said. “I like to have a nice
decent meal for dinner.”
Matthew Ericson and Janet Roberts contributed reporting.
November 17, 2009
The New York Times
By JASON DePARLE
WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked
consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest
since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years
ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.
The increase, of 13 million Americans, was much larger than even the most
pessimistic observers of hunger trends had expected and cast an alarming light
on the daily hardships caused by the recession’s punishing effect on jobs and
About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called
“very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals,
cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.
The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or
less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food
pantries and soup kitchens.
“These numbers are a wake-up call for the country,” said Agriculture Secretary
One figure that drew officials’ attention was the number of households, 506,000,
in which children faced “very low food security”: up from 323,000 the previous
year. President Obama, who has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015, released
a statement while traveling in Asia that called the finding “particularly
The ungainly phrase “food insecurity” stems from years of political and academic
wrangling over how to measure adequate access to food. In the 1980s, when
officials of the Reagan administration denied there was hunger in the United
States, the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group, began
a survey that concluded otherwise. Over time, Congress had the Agriculture
Department oversee a similar survey, which the Census Bureau administers.
Though researchers at the Agriculture Department do not use the word “hunger,”
Mr. Obama did. “Hunger rose significantly last year,” he said.
Analysts said the main reason for the growth was the rise in the unemployment
rate, to 7.2 percent at the end of 2008 from 4.9 percent a year earlier. And
since it now stands at 10.2 percent, the survey might in fact understate the
number of Americans struggling to get adequate food.
Rising food prices, too, might have played a role.
The food stamp rolls have expanded to record levels, with 36 million Americans
now collecting aid, an increase of nearly 40 percent from two years ago. And the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed last winter, raised the average
monthly food stamp benefit per person by about 17 percent, to $133. Many states
have made it easier for those eligible to apply, but rising applications and
staffing cuts have also brought long delays.
Problems gaining access to food were highest in households with children headed
by single mothers. About 37 percent of them reported some form of food
insecurity compared with 14 percent of married households with children. About
29 percent of Hispanic households reported food insecurity, compared with 27
percent of black households and 12 percent of white households. Serious problems
were most prevalent in the South, followed equally by the West and Midwest.
Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to
define what it measures. The 18-item questionnaire asks about skipped meals and
hunger pangs, but also whether people had worries about getting food. It ranks
the severity of their condition by the number of answers that indicate a
“Very few of these people are hungry,” said Robert Rector, an analyst at the
conservative Heritage Foundation. “When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind
of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it’s a far cry from a hunger crisis.”
The report measures the number of households that experienced problems at any
point in the year. Only a “small fraction” were facing the problem at a given
moment. Among those with “very low food security,” for instance, most
experienced the condition for several days in each of seven or eight months.
James Weill, the director of the food center that pioneered the report, called
it a careful look at an underappreciated condition.
“Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals,” he said. “Others say they
have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food
stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger.’ ”
October 11, 2009
The New York Times
By KATIE ZEZIMA
Coroners and medical examiners across the country are
reporting spikes in the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burials, with
states, counties and private funeral homes having to foot the bill when families
The increase comes as governments short on cash are cutting other social service
programs, with some municipalities dipping into emergency and reserve funds to
help cover the costs of burials or cremations.
Oregon, for example, has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of unclaimed
bodies over the past few years, the majority left by families who say they
cannot afford services. “There are more people in our cooler for a longer period
of time,” said Dr. Karen Gunson, the state’s medical examiner. “It’s not that
we’re not finding families, but that the families are having a harder time
coming up with funds to cover burial or cremation costs.”
About a dozen states now subsidize the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies,
including Illinois, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Most of the
state programs provide disposition services to people on Medicaid, a cost that
has grown along with Medicaid rolls.
Financing in Oregon comes from fees paid to register the deaths with the state.
The state legislature in June voted to raise the filing fee for death
certificates to $20 from $7, to help offset the increased costs of state
cremations, which cost $450.
“I’ve been here for 24 years, and I can’t remember something like this happening
before,” Dr. Gunson said.
Already in 2009, Wisconsin has paid for 15 percent more cremations than it did
last year, as the number of Medicaid recipients grew by more than 95,000 people
since the end of January, said Stephanie Smiley, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin
Department of Health Services.
In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn tried to end the state’s indigent burial program
this year, shifting the financing to counties and funeral homes, but the state
eventually found $12 million to continue the program when funeral directors
The majority of burials and cremations, however, are handled on the city,
county, town or township level, an added economic stress as many places face
down wide budget gaps.
Boone County, Mo., hit its $3,000 burial budget cap last month, and took $1,500
out of a reserve fund to cover the rest of the year. While the sum is relatively
low, it comes as the county is facing a $2 million budget shortfall, tax
collections are down 5 percent and the number of residents needing help is
expected to grow.
“We’ve had a significant increase in unemployment, wages are dropping,
industrial manufacturing jobs go away and companies scaled back or even closed
their doors,” said Skip Elkin, the county commissioner. “But we feel an
obligation to help families who don’t have any assets.”
The medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., Dr. Carl Schmidt, bought a
refrigerated truck after the morgue ran out of space. The truck, which holds 35
bodies, is currently full, Dr. Schmidt said. “We’ll buy another truck if we have
to,” he said.
Many places are turning to cremation, which averages a third to half the price
of a burial. However, they will accommodate families’ requests for burial.
Clyde Gibbs, the chief medical examiner in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the office
typically averaged 25 to 30 unclaimed bodies each year. At the end of the 2008
fiscal year there were at least 60, Dr. Gibbs said. The office cremates about
three-quarters of the remains, and scatters the ashes at sea every few years.
In Tennessee, medical examiner and coroners’ offices donate unclaimed remains to
the Forensic Anthropological Research Center, known as the “Body Farm,” where
students study decomposition at the University of Tennessee. The facility had to
briefly halt donations because it had received so many this year, said its
spokesman, Jay Mayfield.
The increase in indigent burials and cremations is also taking a toll on funeral
homes, which are losing money as more people choose cremation over burial. In
2003, 29.5 percent of remains were cremated; by 2008 the number had grown to 36
percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America, and it is
expected to soar to 46 percent by 2015, according to the association’s
projection of current trends.
Don Catchen, owner of Don Catchen & Son Funeral Homes in Elsmere, Ky., who
handles cremations of the poor in Kenton County, said the $831 county
reimbursement for cremations was “just enough to cover the cost of what I do — I
donate my time.”
In Florida, where counties switched to cremation a few years ago to save on
costs, Prudencio Vallejo, general manager of the Unclaimed Bodies Unit of the
Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office, said cremations were $425,
compared with $1,500 for a burial. They have risen about 10 percent this year,
Mr. Vallejo said.
“Most people, the first thing that they say is ‘We wouldn’t be coming to you if
we could afford to do it ourselves,’ ” he said.
Broward County, Fla., paid for the cremation of Renata Richardson’s daughter,
Jazmyn Rose, who was born stillborn on Sept. 25, 2008. Ms. Richardson, 26, lost
her job at an advertising agency in July and could not afford to pay.
The county spent about $1,000 on a cremation and pink urn, engraved with the
baby’s birth and death date, and a Bible passage. It now sits in the bassinette
where she was to sleep.
“I was strapped for cash, I was in mourning, and I didn’t know what they were
going to do with her,” Ms. Richardson, of Davie, Fla., said. “I was honored that
they went that far to help me.”
The chief emerges from his tent to face the leaden morning
light. It had been a rare, rough night in his homeless Brigadoon: a boozy brawl,
the wielding of a knife taped to a stick. But the community handled it, he says
with pride, his day’s first cigar already aglow.
By community he means 80 or so people living in tents on a spit of state land
beside the dusky Providence River: Camp Runamuck, no certain address, downtown
Because the two men in the fight had violated the community’s written compact,
they were escorted off the camp, away from the protection of an abandoned
overpass. One was told we’ll discuss this in the morning; the other was voted
off the island, his knife tossed into the river, his tent taken down.
The chief flicks his spent cigar into that same river. There is talk of rain
Behind him, the camp stirs. Other tent cities have sprung up recently around the
country, but Rhode Island officials have never seen anything like this. A tea
A heavily pierced young person walks by without picking up an empty plastic
bottle, flouting the camp compact that says everyone will share in the labor.
The compact may be as impermanent as this sudden community by the river, but for
now it is binding. The chief speaks, the bottle is picked up.
The chief, John Freitas, is 55, with a gray beard touched by tobacco rust. He
did prison time decades ago, worked for years as a factory supervisor, then
became homeless for all the familiar, complicated reasons.
Layoffs, health problems, a slip from apartment to motel room. His girlfriend,
Barbara Kalil, 50, lost her job as a nursing-home nurse, and another slip, into
the shelter system. A job holding store-liquidation signs beside the highway
allowed for a climb back to a motel, but it didn’t last.
Weary of shelters, the couple pitched a pup tent in Roger Williams Park, close
to a plaque bearing words Williams had used to describe this place he founded:
“A Shelter for Persons in Distress.” But someone complained, so Mr. Freitas set
off again in search of shelter. The March winds blew.
Down South Main Street he went, past the majestic court building and the upscale
seafood restaurant, over a guardrail to a gravelly plot beneath a ramp that once
guided cars toward Cape Cod. Foul-smelling and partially hidden, a place of
birds and rodents, it was perfect.
He and Ms. Kalil set up camp with another couple in early April. Word of it
spread from the shelters to Kennedy Plaza downtown, where homeless people share
the same empty Tim Hortons cup to pose as customers worthy of visiting that
doughnut chain’s restroom. The camp became 10 people, then 15, then 25. No
“I was always considered the leader, the chief,” Mr. Freitas says. “I was the
one consulted about ‘Where should I put my tent?’ ”
By late June the camp had about 50 people. But someone questioned the role of
Mr. Freitas as chief, so he stepped down. Arguments broke out. Food was stolen.
“There was no center holding,” recalls Rachell Shaw, 22, who lives with her
boyfriend in a tidy tent decorated with porcelain dolls. “So everybody voted him
The community also established a five-member leadership council and a compact
that read in part: “No one person shall be greater than the will of the whole.”
It is now late afternoon in late July, a month after nearly everyone signed that
compact. The community remains intact, though the very ground they walk on says
nothing is forever. Here and there are the exposed foundations of fish shacks
that lined the river long ago.
Some state officials recently stopped by to say, nicely but firmly, that
everyone would soon have to leave. The overpass poses the threat of falling
concrete, and is scheduled for demolition. The officials have shared the same
message with a smaller encampment across the river.
For now, a game of horseshoes sends echoing clanks, as outreach workers conduct
interviews and raindrops thrum the tent tops. The chief lights another cigar and
walks the length of the camp to tell residents to batten down, explaining its
structure as he goes.
Here at the end, nearest the road, are the tents of young single people and
substance abusers; this way, rescue vehicles won’t disrupt the entire compound.
Here in the center are a cluster of couples, including two competing for the
nicest property, with homey touches like planted flowers. Here too are the food
table, the coolers, the piles of donated clothes — what can’t be used will be
taken by camp residents to the Salvation Army — and the large tent of the chief.
Plastic pink flamingos stand guard.
Farther on, the recycled-can area (the money is used for ice and propane); the
area for garbage bags that will be discreetly dropped in nearby Dumpsters at
night; and, behind a blue tarp hung from the overpass, a plastic toilet. The
chief says the shared task of removing the bags of waste tends to test the
Finally, near some rocks where men go to urinate, live a gay couple and some
people who drink hard. Timothy Webb, 49, who says he used to own a salon in
Cranston called Class Act, cuts people’s hair here. Then, at night, he and his
partner, Norman Trank, 45, sit at a riverside table, a battery-operated candle
giving light, the moving waters suggesting mystery.
“It’s what you make of it,” Mr. Trank says.
Dark clouds have brought night early to Providence. Heavy drops thump against
tarp. Water drips from the overpass, onto the long table of food.
In the last couple of hours the chief has resolved a conflict about tarp
distribution, hugged a pregnant woman who mistakenly thought she had been kicked
off the island, conferred with outreach workers and helped with dinner
preparations. He is also thinking about tomorrow.
Tomorrow, an advance party for the chief will leave to claim another spot across
the river that turns out not to be on public property. Many in the camp will
decide it’s time to move on anyway, to a spot under a bridge in East Providence.
Camp Runamuck will begin its recession from sight and memory.
At least tonight there is a communal dinner: donated chicken, parboiled and
grilled; donated corn on the cob; donated potatoes. People line up with paper
The rain falls harder, pocking the river’s gray surface, surrounding the dark
camp with a sound like fingers drumming in impatience. The chief hears it, but
what can he do? He finishes his dinner and lights another cigar.
In June 2004, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made a lofty promise
to address one of the city’s most intractable problems: he would reduce the
homeless population of 38,000 by two-thirds in five years.
Today, with the total homeless population down only slightly, and with more
families in shelters than five years ago, the administration is seeking state
approval for a new set of policies designed to move families out more quickly,
applying the same market-driven, incentive-based philosophy to homeless shelters
that it has used in schools and antipoverty programs.
Under the new rules, nonprofit agencies that provide shelter beds under contract
with the city would be paid more than the usual rate, which is roughly $100 a
day, for each family that arrives. But after six months, if the agency has not
been able to get the family into stable housing, the city would begin paying it
less than the standard rate.
And city officials are trying to toughen rules and consequences for homeless
families, forcing them to follow a strict code of conduct or risk being ejected
from the shelter.
“The thing that we have been trying to introduce is a greater expectation of
accountability, both by the providers and by the clients themselves,” Linda I.
Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said in an interview. “We
want them to overcome homelessness more quickly. We believe they are in shelter
far longer than they need to be.”
Shelter providers say that they are doing the best they can, and that the
proposed payment structure could achieve the opposite of its intended result,
especially since the city just imposed a 4 percent budget cut as part of
reductions in virtually every city agency.
Christy Parque, the executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition
of more than 60 providers, said that further reductions “could result in an
increased length of stay in shelter, because there will be fewer staff and
resources to help clients address their problems and return to the community
Advocates for the homeless called the city’s plans mean-spirited, and warned
that they would threaten the safety of families, especially children, forced to
leave the shelter with no place to go.
“It’s an extraordinary change in what has been city policy for nearly three
decades,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society.
“It’s striking that the current city administration and the current state
administration would be returning to these shelter-termination regulations,
which are really a relic of another, harsher era.”
The attempt to evict families from shelters began under Mayor Rudolph W.
Giuliani, an effort that was blocked by the courts. The Bloomberg administration
has been no more successful. In 2002, the city pursued a policy that would allow
it to eject families it deemed uncooperative, but backed down and agreed to
reserve the right to eject single adults, but not families.
Ms. Gibbs said that an ejection could result from a homeless family “refusing to
look for housing, refusing to seek employment, anything that is an unreasonable
refusal to participate in the steps they need to take to overcome their
“The families need to understand that they can’t just thumb their nose at the
rules and have no consequences,” she said.
One thing is indisputable: While the population of homeless single adults has
gone down significantly in the last five years, the number of families sleeping
in shelters is near an all-time high. According to the Web site for the
Department of Homeless Services, there were 34,774 people in shelters last week,
including 9,361 families — often single mothers with children.
About 150 organizations that hold contracts with the city operate most of the
homeless shelters. (The city runs a small handful of its own shelters.)
The cost of providing shelter has risen. The city estimates that it costs
roughly $36,000 a year to house a homeless family, up from $31,656 in 2004. The
average stay in a shelter is about nine months.
City officials have privately expressed frustration at their inability to get a
handle on the problem, despite efforts to expand homelessness prevention and
introduce rental subsidy programs.
The new policies reflect the administration’s determination to rid the system of
families who stay in shelters for long stretches, sometimes rejecting apartments
offered to them, while giving the shelter providers an incentive to get them
Under the new rules, which would take effect in January, the city would pay the
agencies a 10 percent premium for the first six months that it houses a family.
During that time, the agency is expected to push the family toward economic
independence and permanent housing. But if the family stayed longer, the
agencies would be paid 20 percent less than the standard rate.
But advocates for the homeless questioned the city’s ability to avoid
bureaucratic mistakes that could result in a family being wrongly ejected.
In May, a state-mandated program to charge rent to the working homeless was
quickly suspended after it began with a dizzying series of errors from both
state and city agencies. (City officials say the program is being revamped.)
State approval is required to make changes to social service policies. Anthony
Farmer, a spokesman for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance,
said the state commissioner was considering the proposals.
Robert V. Hess, the city’s commissioner of homeless services, said that the new
policies would be put in place after a long rollout, staff training and
orientation, and that ejections would occur only after a thorough review.
“At the end of the day, we’re not putting policies in place that are intended,
or will result in, people just arbitrarily having their shelter rights
terminated,” Mr. Hess said. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Bonnie Stone, the executive director of Women in Need, a shelter for women and
children, praised the city for its ability to house an ever-increasing number of
people who needed help.
But the notion of ejecting a family, she said, made her uneasy.
“I believe that you only do that under huge, huge safety and due process, and
not for small things,” she said, pausing. “I think it is not what we do.”
At the moment, shelter residents who resist following rules are frequently
subject to another form of punishment: transfer to a shelter seen as less
Tina Rodriguez, a pink-haired 23-year-old with a silver stud in her lip, said
she and her toddler son, Damonie, had been living in a shelter in Hell’s Kitchen
since September, and lately workers there had threatened that if she did not
move out soon, she would be transferred to a so-called Next Step shelter. The
city says such shelters offer more intensive case management, but among
families, they are known for stricter rules and more crowded conditions.
Still, when Ms. Rodriguez was recently offered a studio apartment in Harlem, she
rejected it. “I was scared to tell my worker that I didn’t want it,” she said,
standing outside the Hell’s Kitchen shelter as Damonie slept in a stroller. “But
there was no living room. I can’t live with a 2-year-old in an apartment like
that. They’re trying to force me into somewhere that I’m not comfortable.”
Amanda Hayes, 24, said she entered the shelter system with her toddler, Xavier,
in April after growing fed up with her living arrangements in the Bronx: sharing
a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, adult brother and Xavier.
She needs no additional pressure from shelter workers to persuade her to move
out, she said.
“I’ve been looking for work every day,” Ms. Hayes said. “I don’t need to be
threatened about it at every turn.”
FRESNO, Calif. — As the operations manager of an outreach
center for the homeless here, Paul Stack is used to seeing people down on their
luck. What he had never seen before was people living in tents and lean-tos on
the railroad lot across from the center.
“They just popped up about 18 months ago,” Mr. Stack said. “One day it was
empty. The next day, there were people living there.”
Like a dozen or so other cities across the nation, Fresno is dealing with an
unhappy déjà vu: the arrival of modern-day Hoovervilles, illegal encampments of
homeless people that are reminiscent, on a far smaller scale, of Depression-era
shantytowns. At his news conference on Tuesday night, President Obama was asked
directly about the tent cities and responded by saying that it was “not
acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a
country as wealthy as ours.”
While encampments and street living have always been a part of the landscape in
big cities like Los Angeles and New York, these new tent cities have taken root
— or grown from smaller enclaves of the homeless as more people lose jobs and
housing — in such disparate places as Nashville, Olympia, Wash., and St.
In Seattle, homeless residents in the city’s 100-person encampment call it
Nickelsville, an unflattering reference to the mayor, Greg Nickels. A tent city
in Sacramento prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to announce a plan Wednesday
to shift the entire 125-person encampment to a nearby fairground. That came
after a recent visit by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” set off such a news media
stampede that some fed-up homeless people complained of overexposure and said
they just wanted to be left alone.
The problem in Fresno is different in that it is both chronic and largely
outside the national limelight. Homelessness here has long been fed by the ups
and downs in seasonal and subsistence jobs in agriculture, but now the recession
has cast a wider net and drawn in hundreds of the newly homeless — from
hitchhikers to truck drivers to electricians.
“These are able-bodied folks that did day labor, at minimum wage or better, who
were previously able to house themselves based on their income,” said Michael
Stoops, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an
advocacy group based in Washington.
The surging number of homeless people in Fresno, a city of 500,000 people, has
been a surprise. City officials say they have three major encampments near
downtown and smaller settlements along two highways. All told, as many 2,000
people are homeless here, according to Gregory Barfield, the city’s homeless
prevention and policy manager, who said that drug use, prostitution and violence
were all too common in the encampments.
“That’s all part of that underground economy,” Mr. Barfield said. “It’s what
happens when a person is trying to survive.”
He said the city planned to begin “triage” on the encampments in the next
several weeks, to determine how many people needed services and permanent
housing. “We’re treating it like any other disaster area,” Mr. Barfield said.
Mr. Barfield took over his newly created position in January, after the county
and city adopted a 10-year plan to address homelessness. A class-action lawsuit
brought on behalf of homeless people against the city and the California
Department of Transportation led to a $2.35 million settlement in 2008, making
money available to about 350 residents who had had their belongings discarded in
sweeps by the city.
The growing encampments led the city to place portable toilets and security
guards near one area known as New Jack City, named after a dark and drug-filled
1991 movie. But that just attracted more homeless people.
“It was just kind of an invitation to move in,” said Mr. Stack, the outreach
On a recent afternoon, nobody seemed thrilled to be living in New Jack City, a
filthy collection of rain- and wind-battered tents in a garbage-strewn lot.
Several weary-looking residents sat on decaying sofas as a pair of pit bulls
chained to a fence howled.
Northwest of New Jack City sits a somewhat less grim encampment. It is sometimes
called Taco Flats or Little Tijuana because of the large number of Latino
residents, many of whom were drawn to Fresno on the promise of agricultural
jobs, which have dried up in the face of the poor economy and a three-year
Guillermo Flores, 32, said he had looked for work in the fields and in fast
food, but had found nothing. For the last eight months, he has collected cans,
recycling them for $5 to $10 a day, and lived in a hand-built, three-room shack,
a home that he takes pride in, with a door, clean sheets on his bed and a bowl
full of fresh apples in his propane-powered kitchen area.
“I just built it because I need it,” said Mr. Flores, as he cooked a dinner of
chili peppers, eggs and onions over a fire. “The only problem I have is the
Dozens of homeless men and women here have found more organized shelter at the
Village of Hope, a collection of 8-by-10-foot storage sheds built by the
nonprofit group Poverello House and overseen by Mr. Stack. Planted in a former
junkyard behind a chain-link fence, each unit contains two cots, sleeping bags
and a solar-powered light.
Doug Brown, a freelance electrical engineer, said he had discovered the Village
of Hope while unemployed a few years back and had returned after losing his job
in October. Mr. Stoops, of the homeless coalition, predicted that the population
at such new Hoovervilles could grow as those without places to live slowly
burned through their options and joined the ranks of the chronically homeless,
many of whom are indigent as a result of illiteracy, alcoholism, mental illness
and drug abuse.
That mix is already evident in a walk around Taco Flats, where Sean Langer, 42,
who lost a trucking job in December and could pass for a soccer dad, lives in
his car in front of a sturdy shanty that is home to Barbara Smith, 41, a crack
addict with a wild cackle for a laugh.
“This is a one-bedroom house,” said Ms. Smith, proudly taking a visitor through
her home built with scrap wood and scavenged two-by-fours. “We got a roof, and
it does not leak.”
During the day, the camp can seem peaceful. American flags fly over some
shanties, and neighbors greet one another. Some feed pets, while others build
fires and chat.
Daniel Kent, a clean-shaven 27-year-old from Oregon, has been living in Taco
Flats for three months after running out of money on a planned hitchhiking trip
to Florida. He did manage to earn $35 a day holding up a going-out-of-business
sign for Mervyn’s until the department store actually went of out business.
Mr. Kent planned to attend a job fair soon, but said he did not completely mind
“We got veterans out here; we got people with heart, proud to be who they are,”
Mr. Kent said. “Regardless of living situations, it doesn’t change the heart.
There’s some good people out here, really good people.”
But the danger after dark is real. Ms. Smith, who lost an eye after being shot
in the face years ago, said she had seen two people killed in New Jack City,
prompting her to move to Taco Flats and try to quit drugs. Her companion, Willie
Mac, 53, a self-described youth minister, said he was “waiting on her to get
herself right with the Lord.”
Ms. Smith said her dream was simple: “To get out of here, get off the street,
have our own home.”
EXTON, Pa. — Casualties of the economic downturn include easy credit, rising
home values, stable retirement investment accounts and 4.4 million jobs.
Some fear that the American dream may be in peril as well.
The aspirations that have defined the American experience — that those who work
hard and play by the rules can get ahead, and that the next generation will have
a better life than this one — have been battered by a devastating recession that
shows few signs of having hit bottom.
"Maybe we were dreaming the American dream, you know what I mean?" says David
McLimans, a steelworker. The mill he works for in suburban Philadelphia
temporarily shut down last week amid the credit crunch. "I'm 63, so I'm not
dreaming it anymore. I have what I have and I hope I can keep what I have, but
my kids, I worry about. They're struggling."
His four grown children have a lot of company. More than 24 million Americans
shifted in 2008 from lives that were "thriving" to ones that were "struggling,"
according to a massive study by Gallup and Healthways, a Tennessee health
management company. Results from its Well-Being Index — including physical and
mental health as well as personal finances and job satisfaction — are being
For the project, Gallup has been surveying about 1,000 people every day except
major holidays since January 2008.
At the start of 2008, as the recession was beginning, slightly more people were
"thriving" than "struggling." By the end of the year, after an economic meltdown
that began with the subprime mortgage crisis, Americans by an overwhelming 20
percentage points were "struggling" rather than "thriving," 58%-38%.
The remaining 4% were "suffering," in more dire straits.
The index categorizes respondents based on how they rate their current lives as
well as their expectations of where they will be in five years. Among those
showing the steepest drop were African Americans, business owners and
executives, and people who were 35-39 years old — a stage in life when many are
building careers, expanding families and buying homes.
Among those with the smallest decline were Hispanics, seniors 65 and older, and
repair workers, whose skills suddenly may be more in demand as Americans try to
make do with what they have.
No group was immune, however. High levels of education and income have protected
many workers during previous downturns, but the Well-Being Index shows declines
in 2008 across all age groups and income levels, among both men and women and in
every major racial and ethnic group.
In Chester County, south of Philadelphia, the downturn has been felt not only by
steelworkers in Coatesville but also investment bankers in Exton and among
immigrants who toil on the mushroom farms in Kennett Square.
"People have lost their jobs and they're in the unemployment lines," says James
Kennedy, the 91-year-old mayor of South Coatesville. Even so, he recalls, the
Great Depression was worse.
"The current recession hits everyone and spares no one," says Andrew Dinniman,
the local state senator and a professor of global studies at West Chester
University of Pennsylvania. "The bottom line is: industrial worker, professional
worker — we're all in this together."
The wide reach of hard times has made it difficult for Americans to use some
traditional strategies to cope.
Get training for a new job? The index shows declines in every occupation, from
business managers and professionals to clerical staff and service workers. Move
to a different part of the country? The percentage of those "thriving" fell by
double digits in the West, South and Midwest and by more than 9 percentage
points in the East.
The findings underscore the enormous task the United States faces in pulling out
of the worst downturn since the Depression and in maintaining the sense of
possibility that has marked the nation since its founding.
Optimism that individuals could reach better days ahead fueled the westward
expansion, waves of innovation and the country's continued draw for immigrants
from around the world.
The concept of the American dream reflects aspirations for the long term that
have endured through good times and bad, but it is not indestructible, says
Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard.
"What people mean by the 'American dream' is something that is not a snapshot;
it's something that is played out over time and not just in their lifetime, but
the lifetimes of their children," she says.
"It may be impervious to a short-term job loss, to a short-run health problem,
but it's not going to be impervious to a slowdown of the entire economy that
lasts for a very long period of time," especially if traditional gains in
education are stalled.
In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken last week, Americans by about 3-to-1 said they
believed that with hard work they could achieve the American dream. Even so, one
tenet of that dream — faith that the next generation will have a better life
than their parents — is eroding.
Ten years ago, during an economic boom, 71% of Americans said it was likely that
those in the next generation would be better off than their parents.
One year ago, 66% agreed.
Now, 59% do.
The pursuit of happiness
The groundbreaking Gallup-Healthways index makes clear how intertwined
individual lives are with the nation's well-being. Dramatic shifts in the stock
market and the jobless rate often correlated with changes in Americans'
assessments of where their lives stood now and where they would be in the
Consider the Declaration of Independence's assertion of a natural-born right to
The survey lists several emotions, including happiness, and asks if respondents
experienced them the previous day. Weekends tended to have the highest
percentage of those reporting happiness or enjoyment without much stress or
worry — no surprise there — and Thanksgiving was the happiest day of the year,
when 68% were upbeat.
The five days with the lowest levels of happiness all coincided with awful
Just 37% of Americans said they felt a lot of happiness and not a lot of stress
on four downbeat days: Sept. 17, when the Dow fell 449 points; Sept. 29, when
the Dow dropped 778 points and the House rejected President Bush's Wall Street
bailout plan; Nov. 20, when new jobless claims hit the highest level since 1992;
and Dec. 2, one day after the nation officially was declared in recession,
pushing down the Dow by 680 points.
The unhappiest day of all was Dec. 11, when new jobless claims reached a 26-year
high. A record-low 35% of Americans reported that day as a happy one.
For Amy Beers, the past year has been trying.
The 36-year-old woman from Perkasie, in Bucks County, had been on a fast track.
She built a career in direct marketing, worked with an inventor who had
developed a handheld device that could neutralize land mines without detonation,
attended a land-mine conference in Croatia to promote it, then started her own
firm to help local companies develop customer loyalty.
Last year, her business dried up. She tends bar at night to help pay the bills
for her and her 7-year-old son, Zack, while she looks for a job in her field by
"I've gone from corporate America to the top of Comcast's shut-off list," she
says ruefully. "It's been a truly humbling experience, and for a very long time
I was embarrassed not to have a job. You go through the emotional loss. In some
ways, it's like mourning. I've had those doubts and depression: 'Oh my goodness,
my life is falling apart in front of my eyes!'
"But at the end of the day, I know who I am. I know that this isn't permanent,
and I really have belief that things are going to get better."
Even Beers' job at a Bennigan's restaurant in Montgomeryville is an opportunity,
she says. The traveling business executives who stay in the adjoining hotel and
come in for a nightcap might have a job at their companies.
Her pitch: "Hi, is anyone out there looking for an employee?"
Obama: Keep 'the dream alive'
President Obama regularly talks about the American dream as threatened and its
restoration as a central goal. "We have begun the essential work of keeping the
American dream alive in our time," he said when he signed the $787 billion
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ticks off what the White House sees as
elements of the American dream: "That you could get a job that pays a living
wage, that if you got sick you wouldn't go bankrupt, that you don't have to be
rich to send your kids to college, that you could have a secure retirement."
Safire's New Political Dictionary puts it this way: "The American System is
considered the skeleton and the American Dream the soul of the American body
politic." Author William Safire adds that the phrase "defies definition as much
as it invites discussion."
Karen Beltran's family epitomizes one classic version of the American dream.
Her father came to southern Pennsylvania from Mexico to work on the mushroom
farms and as a dishwasher, eventually bringing his wife and their two young
daughters here. At first illegal immigrants, Jose and Martha Beltran eventually
gained legal status and last month became U.S. citizens.
An organization in Kennett Square called La Comunidad Hispana helped them gain
their high-school equivalency diplomas. They own their home now — he is a
mechanic; she is employed at a potato-chip factory — and have sent their two
older daughters to college.
Karen, 25, who graduated from Penn State in 2005, now works as a social worker
at the same community center that helped them.
The downturn has postponed her father's hopes of moving to a new job and reduced
their ability to contribute toward college expenses for their youngest,
American-born daughter, who is now in high school. Still, ask Karen Beltran
about the American dream and she plays down financial strains to boast about how
close-knit her family remains: "We're still together."
In the face of a faltering economy, some analysts say, Americans may be
redefining some fundamental ambitions. A study sponsored by Northwestern Mutual
and being released today asked Americans to define "success." Topping the list
were spending time with family, having a good relationship with a spouse or
partner, being healthy and maintaining a good work/life balance.
Ranked near the bottom were such material goals as owning "the home of your
dreams" and earning a high income.
Still, three of four in the nationwide poll ranked financial security as
important — and only 12% said they felt secure in their finances these days.
Chris Connell, 50, owner of the Pig & Whistle Deli in Havertown, in
Pennsylvania's Delaware County, has cut back on hours for his employees and
stopped drawing a salary for himself as he struggles to deal with a cash-flow
His wife's paycheck as an emergency-room nurse is keeping the family afloat for
Connell feels confident the economy will be better by the time his 11-year-old
twin daughters, head into the workforce, but he worries about his three older
children, including two who are now in college.
"The twins, we don't want to scare them. We don't want them to think someone is
going to come along and take the house away," he says. "But we at least want to
let them know that things are very, very tight and we have to work at this
"I do still want the same things for them. Never going to stop the dream,
absolutely. Never lower my standard of dreaming."
had 12% fewer homeless last year than in 2005, and the greatest decline occurred
among those who chronically live on the streets or in emergency shelters,
according to a federal report to be released Tuesday.
"This is a
success story," says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and
co-author of the report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
(HUD). He attributes the decline to better tracking and to increased efforts to
house the "chronically homeless" — disabled adults who are continuously homeless
for at least a year.
The number of people on the street or in emergency shelters on a single night in
January, the month in which the tally was taken, fell from 763,010 in 2005 to
671,888 last year, the report says. Most were homeless temporarily. Among those
who were chronically homeless, the number fell from 175,914 in 2005 to 123,833
"This reduction is the largest documented decrease in homelessness in our
nation's history," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S.
Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates federal efforts. He says
it shows that the increase in housing units for the long-term homeless, funded
by HUD and communities, is working.
Homeless advocates say the data, which come from 3,800 cities and counties that
receive HUD funds, do not count every homeless person and do not reflect this
year's weaker economy.
"Chronic homelessness may be down, but the non-chronic population is
increasing," says Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National
Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. He says
he's getting reports of shelters filling with families that have lost homes to
A lot of people become homeless when they are forced to choose between paying
for food and gas, which have sharply increased in cost this year, or housing,
says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a
"These are tough times," says Culhane, adding that homeless numbers often
reflect the economy. He says this year's homeless data, which HUD is starting to
receive for January, paints a "mixed" picture of increases in some areas, such
as Connecticut, and decreases in others, including New York City.
Mangano sees an upside to the weak housing market, saying foreclosures create
opportunities for communities to buy properties at lower prices to use as
For the first time, HUD's report includes a count of people using shelters or
transitional housing during a full year. From October 2006 to September 2007,
1.6 million people sought help for homelessness. Of those, 69% were men, 64%
were minorities, and 30% were in families.
FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Christine Fuller finds holiday kindness
at unexpected moments, such as before sunrise at a bus stop 7 miles from the
A bus driver sees her switching buses each weekday morning
at 6:15 with four neatly dressed children, ages 6 to 10, as she escorts them to
a before-school program. The driver lauds their behavior and says he wants to
give each child a Christmas present.
Fuller doesn't know his name. He doesn't know hers. She says presents would be
The bus driver also doesn't know that Fuller and her children are homeless.
They've been living at a shelter since September. Fuller has a full-time job
that pays her $23,000 a year but says she can't afford an apartment in this
affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where a typical two-bedroom apartment rents
for $1,225 a month.
The problem of poverty and homelessness — and how difficult it is to escape — is
poignantly illustrated in the hit movie The Pursuit of Happyness, which stars
Will Smith and his son, Jaden.
At least 2 million Americans, many of whom have jobs and families, are homeless
at some point over the course of a year, says Philip Mangano, executive director
of the White House's Interagency Council on Homelessness.
"It's very traumatic for children," Mangano says.
It can be particularly so in a place like Falls Church and surrounding Fairfax
County, one of the nation's wealthiest areas with a median household income of
Fuller, 32, tries to ward off any trauma by focusing on routines and maintaining
dignity in tough circumstances.
Her day starts at 3:45 a.m., in the two-bedroom, 300-square-foot unit her family
occupies at Shelter House, a county facility that can house seven families.
Fuller gets ready for her job as a dispatch assistant at a courier service, then
at 5 a.m. wakes her boys, William, 10, and Isaiah, 7. After she gets them going,
she rouses the girls, Beatrice, 8, and Jhavona, 6.
"Mom, our life is so boring," she says the kids tell her. "You sound like a
They're out the door by 5:45 a.m. with a snack in hand to catch the first public
bus. They switch buses before arriving at a before-school program that opens at
6:30 a.m. The kids have subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.
"My 7-year-old knows every bus route," says Fuller, sitting on a vinyl couch in
her unit's small living area.
After dropping off the kids, she boards another bus to get to her job, which she
has held for three years, by 7:30 a.m. She works until 5 p.m. and then takes a
bus to pick up her kids at an after-school program. She pays $177 monthly for
the child care. The unsubsidized cost for four kids in similar programs in
Fairfax County is $1,500.
Being homeless during the holidays can be particularly grim, but this month
Fuller and her children have received several gifts from charitable residents,
from dolls to firetrucks to a microwave oven. Such gifts reflect both the
generosity of individuals and the same community wealth that has hindered
Fuller's ability to find her own place to live.
"Apartments cost a lot here," says Fuller, a never-married high school dropout
who has six children in all. The two oldest — a 16-year-old boy and a
14-year-old girl — live with a family friend in a nearby town and are in their
high school's marching band.
Fuller says she can't move to a more affordable city or distant suburb because
her job is near downtown Washington and she has no car. Despite the difficulty
of living in such an expensive area, she's also reluctant to go elsewhere
because she grew up here, and her mother and grandparents live nearby.
Fuller receives child support from the father of one of her children. She
doesn't know where one of the fathers is, and another helps out with child care
on weekends. But when it comes to finances, she's largely on her own.
Families without homes
Families with children make up about 40% of the nation's homeless people,
according to a USA TODAY analysis of government data. Those in homeless families
represent about 55% of the roughly 2,000 homeless people in Fairfax, which has
about 1 million residents.
More than half the single homeless adults in Fairfax are white, while 65% of
those in homeless families are African-American, according to a county report
released this month.
Two of every five homeless adults in Fairfax works, says Gerry Connolly,
chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "A lot of people benefit from our
vibrant economy, but others are cut out," he says. He cites the loss of hundreds
of affordable housing units during the recent real estate boom.
"When you meet the (homeless) children, your heart breaks," Connolly says,
"because they haven't done anything to deserve it."
He says Fairfax, like many jurisdictions across the nation, has stepped up
efforts to find more places for the homeless to stay, either through their
friends and relatives or churches, motels and shelters. It doesn't always work.
He says some people live in their cars.
"We've even had people living in the woods under tarps," he says.
For most of her life, Fuller lived with her grandparents in a three-bedroom
house in nearby Arlington County. When the grandparents moved to a two-bedroom
apartment in Arlington, officials said it was too small for Fuller and her
children to also live there, so she spent six months in a shelter. She moved
into a three-bedroom basement apartment in Fairfax County, but officials there
deemed it a fire hazard.
Fuller and her four youngest children then spent three months in a motel room
paid for by Fairfax County before a unit became available at Shelter House.
"We're helping the working homeless," shelter director Joe Meyer says.
The children "know this isn't their own place," Fuller says. They can't invite
kids over for play dates or birthday parties. She adds that like many youths who
struggle to cope with the trauma of being homeless, her children have suffered
from mood swings, depression and other problems.
"I know I have to better myself for my kids," she says. She tells her kids to
"stay in school, … stay out of jail, stay out of trouble."
Fuller says when she sees her 14-year-old daughter, she warns her: "Don't make
the mistakes I made" by, among other things, getting pregnant while in high
At Shelter House, government workers make sure homeless families get food stamps
as well as benefits from Medicaid and mental health and social services
agencies. Parents such as Fuller must attend evening workshops on parenting,
alcohol and drug awareness, financial planning and job-seeking skills.
Families are expected to stay no more than three months, but they can stay
longer if they have no other housing options and make progress toward
self-sufficiency, Meyer says. He says Fuller's family will be able to stay until
she can get a subsidized apartment.
"They've been a great help," Fuller says. She initially chafed at the shelter's
10 p.m. curfew and visitor restrictions, but says she's learning to manage money
better and pay off $5,000 in credit card debt.
Fuller says she's not buying Christmas toys for her children, only necessities.
Sometimes they tease her, calling her "the Grinch."
Fairfax board Chairman Connolly's concern about the impact of homelessness on
families is reflected in the waiting list for the 32 units the county has
available at Shelter House and two other facilities. The list is approaching 90
A report released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that analyzed
homelessness in 23 cities said that in most of the cities, some homeless
families have to split up in order to find shelter.
"This is just unacceptable," says Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer, the
The Conference of Mayors report says requests for shelter rose 9% last year in
the 23 cities surveyed.
Housing affordability is the top problem, says Dennis Culhane, a University of
Pennsylvania professor of social welfare policy. He says the government needs to
use tax credits to push more investors and developers to build affordable
apartments. He says it's much cheaper to give a housing subsidy to a homeless
family than to put the family in a shelter, which can cost $50,000 for a
Mangano says federal spending on housing subsidies has risen in recent years,
but the number of available units hasn't increased because of rising real estate
Adding holiday cheer
While communities struggle to find solutions for homelessness, people such as
Ginger Mahon are helping make the lives of homeless families a little better
this time of the year by playing Santa.
Mahon, a PTA president in Great Falls, Va., a half-hour drive from Shelter
House, asked her neighbors to "adopt" a homeless family for Christmas. She asked
several shelters for wish lists of items that homeless people wanted and matched
them with donors.
The Fullers are receiving not only a microwave but also an air hockey table, a
$100 Target gift card, a blanket, pots, pans and dinnerware. Other families at
the shelter are getting presents, including hundreds of dollars in gift cards.
"During the holidays, the community really reaches out," says Meyer, the
shelter's director. He says people wanted to donate iPods last year, but he
reminded them that shelter residents don't have computers to download songs.
On Thursday, Ted Smith, the bus driver who sees Fuller and her children each
weekday, gave the kids huge bags of toys that he and his wife had bought. "You
do good in school and thank the Lord for all you have," he told the youngsters.
Fuller says Beatrice and Jhavona had wanted dolls, and Isaiah asked for
firetrucks. William wanted a Sony PlayStation 3, which costs at least $600, but
he knew his mom couldn't afford it.
Fuller says William told her:
"All I really want for Christmas is our own