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.
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."
Connie Zimmerman, founder and executive director of Colorado Homeless Families, agreed with Coté that more middle-class people like Jeff and Mary are becoming homeless: "We're talking about new poor, working poor-people that live next door, that have education, that have training, that should never have been in this situation." Like Jeff and Mary, many of them are alone. Many have estranged their families or friends through drugs or alcohol, or just being too needy for too long.
Mike and Belinda Andrews expected to spend their California Christmas in a small wooden shed with no heat-the same shed they'd been living in all winter, huddling under piles of blankets with Belinda's 7-year-old and 4-year-old sons to stay warm.
Just two years earlier, they were living in their own apartment and Mike was employed at a financial firm doing filing and support services. Then the company found out about his felony for criminal negligence with a firearm and fired him. After that, Mike could only find haphazard work through a temp agency: digging trenches, picking up trash, and working at a gravel yard where he got paid minimum wage (minus the agency fee) for standing next to a conveyor belt and sifting through asphalt all day.
They lost their apartment and lived in Mike's aunt's storage unit for the first part of 2007, until his aunt's business worries and the illegality forced them out. Mike filled out applications and went to interviews, but as soon as they reached the felony admission, "They'd give you that look like, 'Oh, we'll give you a call back,' but they really wouldn't." As the recession worsened, 50 men would show up at the temp agency and only a few would work each day.
The Andrewses lost their second apartment and their car. Mike had slipped back into drugs and alcohol, so Belinda broke up with him, taking the kids and bouncing from a hotel to an emergency shelter, saying they could get together again when he changed. Mike's family also demanded that he change, and Mike started making a fresh start by excising from his life the friends who got him drunk. He tried staying at a halfway house but it was stocked with drugs and alcohol, so he slept in the streets. Once his aunt saw that he was clean and church-going, she let him sleep on the concrete next to her house, using his backpack as a pillow and his jacket as a blanket.
Belinda and her children returned and they all slept in his aunt's shed-but then the aunt lost her business and home. This time the Andrewses found Village of Hope, a ministry of Orange County Rescue Mission (see WORLD, "The last shall be first," Oct. 15, 2005). They got married and moved in just before Christmas 2008. Belinda cried when she saw their two-bedroom apartment with its games for the kids, brand-new bedding and furniture, and beautiful view. Mike said, "It looked like if you were going to go from a shed to a house, the difference from a Motel 6 to a Hilton."
California's unemployment rate is over 9 percent and Orange County alone saw 4,770 foreclosures-perhaps in part because a family needs a minimum income of $100,000 to purchase a median-priced home there. Some 13,000 Orange County K-12 students were homeless or unstably housed in 2006 and 2007, according to the 2008 Orange County Community Indicators report. Orange County's Housing and Community Services Department calculated 24,000 homeless episodes for families with children in their 2007 survey.
Several homeless caretakers nationwide are seeing an influx of homeless families like the Andrewses. Penny Salazar-Phillips, program director at the Denver-based transitional housing center Joshua Station, said it used to have nine to 15 families show up for quarterly orientation meetings. In the last four meetings that number rose to 30 families, and Joshua Station now has a waiting list prioritized on the precariousness of people's housing situations.
Zimmerman from Colorado Homeless Families said its call volume has increased too. Scott Rogers, director of Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry in North Carolina, said the new families he meets start every request with, "I've never done this before. I don't know how to ask for help but my pastor told me to come here."
Most shelters serve either men or women and children, so sometimes intact families have to split or teenage boys have to brave the men's shelter alone. In Michigan, Kent Clark said his Grace Center of Hope has waiting lists on both the men's and women's sides and is now seeing more couples with children: "For years the rescue mission had the men's dorm and the women's dorm. There wasn't a need for family apartments, but there's definitely that need now. And I think we'll see more of that as this recession . . . continues, because I don't think we've hit bottom yet. Not in Michigan anyway."
Just before Christmas in Phoenix, Raquel Valenzuela and her 9-year-old daughter, Miami, were hiding out in an abandoned apartment, stepping softly during the day and sneaking out at night to pick oranges, lemons, and fruit from a tangerine tree overhanging a nearby alley. When they got back each night Miami would pray, Valenzuela said: "She would pray that no cops or anything would find out we were there. And she would pray, 'God, just give us another day.'" Then they would huddle under blankets in the heatless apartment, wearing all their clothes and shoes in case they had to run during the night.
They lived that way after Valenzuela left her abusive husband. She said her sons, ages 16 and 17, told her, "It's easier to find a roof over your head for two than for four," so she took Miami and lived with her sister for a while. When her sister decided to return to her own husband, Valenzuela faced eviction and saw no alternative than to return to her own husband, too.
She packed their things in their truck, then, "I looked at my daughter and I knew this for a fact: It was going to get worse." She asked Miami what she wanted to do: "She looked up at me and said, 'I don't want to go back.'" It was winter and the shelters were full so they stayed in the abandoned apartment for two weeks, praying for a vacancy in a shelter until one opened up at Family Promise of Greater Phoenix.
On the day I talked to Valenzuela she was planning to work on getting her G.E.D., but Arizona's 4.3 percent job decline in 2008 makes it difficult. She applied at Starbucks, Jack in the Box, and McDonalds, but they all had hiring freezes. The economy is especially slamming single moms like Valenzuela. The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions did an October 2008 survey of 22,000 homeless people and 137 rescue missions, finding that single women with children made up 66 percent of the homeless families they counted-the highest figure in eight years and up from 55 percent the year before. The rest were couples (15 percent), men with children (5 percent) and intact families (14 percent).
Clark said women and children are Michigan's fastest-growing group of people in need, and his shelter turned away over 2,000 of them last year: "The church has got to step up. As government begins to fail and this recession increases, I think individuals, average Americans who are making it, are going to have to do what we did once-get involved in helping and giving back and helping one another." The church, he said, "has become more entertaining than missionary in its outreach to widows and orphans and the homeless."
But there is good news. Organizations like Orange County Rescue Mission, Saginaw Rescue Mission, Step 13, Family Promise, and others are helping people get back on their feet. In Denver, Jeff said he's come to realize that alcohol brought him where he is: "I haven't dealt with it. I'm dealing with it, I guess." In Orange County, Belinda works as a dental assistant while Mike works up to 50 hours a week at the shelter in the kitchen and helping with the after-school program: By the time they graduate from the program, he'll have the work experience and clean record to put his felony behind him. In Phoenix, Valenzuela said of Family Promise, "They fill in the spaces that are empty in a lot of areas. The lady last night, she was a wonderful cook and she reminds me of my mother. . . . The ones that watch over us at night are our guardians."
In Michigan, the once-suicidal Mary converted to Christianity and has felt her depression lift. She says she's "geeked" about designing a new logo for Saginaw Rescue Mission and maybe helping with computer classes. She thinks her homelessness was part of God's plan: "I really believe that God brought me to this point for something, and I don't even really ask what yet. . . . I have nothing but the clothes on my back and the few things the mission has given me, and I'm happy. I'm absolutely happy."