Cover Story
Associated Press/Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez

Hitting home

In past years partisans have often hyped the numbers, but with joblessness and foreclosures up, "we would be naïve to believe that we won't see more homeless"

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

Mary, 58, peered at the glass of antifreeze sitting next to her bed and tried to scold herself into drinking it. The former graphic designer had lost her job a year earlier, run through her savings and 401(k), and fallen three months behind on her rent. Recently, she had researched suicide methods at the library: "I just wanted it to be over. I saw no hope. It was absolute rock bottom."

In November 2006, a newly unemployed Mary had begun looking hard for work, but "graphic arts is a job for a 25-year-old person who doesn't live in mid-Michigan where the economy is depressed. . . . There are no jobs here, plain and simple." She had alienated family and friends, and after a year faced growing desperation: "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I was going to be in a position where I was going to be unemployed, or poverty-stricken, or homeless. I'm at the stage in life where I should be in my golden years and it was like all of a sudden the bottom fell out."

She drank the antifreeze late at night and woke up the next morning: "I got out of bed and I was so angry that I was alive." Her limbs like rubber, she crashed into the walls and the TV on her way to the bathroom, "flopping around like a drunken fish." She spent three days recovering. She asked a friend if she could stay in her apartment and was refused. She finally called the Saginaw Rescue Mission-but only so she could mark time until she could finish her suicide.

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Bob Coté, president of the transitional living center Step 13 in Denver, Colo. (see WORLD, "Got some spare change?" April 27, 1996), says he is now seeing a "different breed of homelessness." Not the repeatedly homeless but people like Mary-first-time homeless, bewildered and scared.

"It's like if someone parachuted you into a strange city, you didn't know where you were at and had two bucks in your pocket," Coté said. The veterans know how to manipulate the system to get what they need, but the new homeless don't: "These people are just lost. . . . They got laid off, they can't pay their rent, they're on the street. Now what? They need some direction. They need to know at least how to get started. And the ones I'm finding that come in here, they're not idiots and they're not happy where they're at."

With 850,000 homes foreclosed and 2.6 million jobs lost in 2008, executive director of the U.S. Inter-agency Council on Homelessness Philip Mangano said, "We would be naïve to believe that we won't see more homeless families." And it's the poorer people "playing by the rules, paying their rent," who often find themselves homeless when their apartment owners suffer foreclosure and inform them they have weeks to find a new place to live. While the official data won't be collected and stamped for approval until later this year, Mangano said the homelessness numbers are going up.

At his poorest, Jeff (some last names in this story are omitted to protect privacy) had 15 cents in his pocket. An ex-military man and a car salesman since the 1980s, he'd seen his sales fall to one or two cars a month. His boss wasn't doing much better, so when he faced foreclosure he kicked Jeff out of the renovated basement Jeff rented from him. For two weeks in October 2008, Jeff slept in his car in Denver, Colo., living off the warm coffee and doughnuts he got at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, using a screwdriver to beat holes in his leftover canned goods, and pretending to shop so he could use the restroom in grocery stores.

He did not know of Denver organizations willing to feed him. He thought of begging for money but couldn't bring himself to do it. When he ran out of money for the gas to heat his car he stood in line at a mission but couldn't take the stares. He slunk away, sold his vacuum cleaner and some DVDs, and spent the money on an alcohol binge.

The next day he found himself in detox, where he slept on a mat next to a guy who cried and vowed never to drink again, only on the next day to be screaming for a bottle. Detox staffers gave Jeff a list and he called Step 13, choosing the center because the receptionist sounded kind: "I was scared to death. When you go from waking up every morning-take a shower, make coffee-to not knowing when you're going to be able to take a shower-it's a simple thing but when you lose it, it just kind of hits you."

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