Homelessness isn’t a problem in some faraway place.
It’s not confined to the “slumdogs” of Mumbai, the ragged heroin addicts curled up in sleeping bags in London subway stations or the agitated folk who blurt strange things as they push their possessions in a shopping cart down a New York City street. Homelessness is a problem on our doorsteps, an issue in our communities.
And though individuals struggling to find shelter sometimes end up in that position due to their own bad choices, demons and misadventures, many people are deprived of one of the fundamentals of everyday life through no fault of their own – a spouse has died, a relationship has turned abusive, they’ve lost a job, or they’re struggling to make ends meet in pittance-paying, service-sector jobs that don’t yield enough to cover both food and rent. The struggle to find shelter in these cases is equal to the struggle to hang on to dignity and self-respect, which is no easy task when your car becomes your address and you have to wash in the bathroom of a fast-food restaurant.
Today, and in the days ahead, the Observer-Reporter will be exploring homelessness in Washington and Greene counties. You will read stories not only of individuals and families who have joined the ranks of the homeless, but its broader impact on the community, whether it comes through crime, business owners who worry that the loitering homeless scare away customers, or through strained social service agencies that have resolutely tried to aid the homeless even as their budgets have been sliced and pared in the wake of the Great Recession.
“They are survivors,” Dean Gartland, the president and chief executive officer of the City Mission, points out in one story. “Some are sleeping in cars, others are living in makeshift tents on the edge of the city – but their quality of life is not good.”
The exact number of homeless people in Washington and Greene counties can be hard to pinpoint given the transient, shadowy nature of the population. It’s been estimated that 3.5 million Americans endure homelessness at some point in any given year, working out to roughly 10 percent of its low-income residents and 1 percent of the entire population. According to figures provided by the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2009 – before the Great Recession inflicted its most grievous damage – 23 percent of the homeless were families with children, and 24 percent were married. Not surprisingly, a majority reported that they had trouble finding enough food to eat, while 38 percent had alcohol problems, 39 percent had mental health difficulties, 55 percent had no health insurance and close to a majority had chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
Long considered to be a scourge of metropolitan areas, the stories in this newspaper illustrate how homelessness has spread into suburban and rural America. During the economic turbulence of the last five years, some communities around the country that had seemingly been cosseted by affluence have seen applications for food stamps and heating assistance increase, and shelters in those areas have had to add beds.
Nathaniel Braden, the noted psychotherapist, once remarked that “the first step toward change is awareness.” While eradicating homelessness in our communities, or in the world at large, might be too tall an order even in the best of times, we hope that by giving a voice to the homeless, and those who care for them, it can indeed help increase awareness and bring about change.