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Homelessness Is at Record Highs: Let's Show Some Real Compassion

America needs a bold new housing policy as growing numbers of Americans sleep in shelters, surf friends' couches and camp in their cars.

Note: Throughout the country, homelessness is rising, with ever more families in ever more towns and cities sleeping in shelters, surfing friends' couches and camping in their cars. In the video on the right hand side of the screen, Patrick Markee and Lizzie Ratner report from a New York intake clinic for homeless families in the Bronx.

On January 14, as the combined forces of recession and foreclosure continued their long, cruel assault on the Rust Belt, Cleveland's public school system marked the new semester with a troubling piece of data: the number of students who had been homeless at some point during the school year had jumped to 1,728. Compared with the same date in 2006, this number represented a spike of nearly 150 percent and served as further confirmation that, for all the whingeing of Wall Street executives, the poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the flailing economy. Not that Cleveland's poorest students needed reminding. In December, when Project ACT, a social service program for homeless students run by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, asked a group of homeless parents what they wanted for Christmas, the parents responded with wish lists worthy of Little Dorrit : toilet paper, bleach, paper towels, food.

"We figured they'd be asking for some nice things, [but] they were asking for basic, basic household things," said Marcia Zashin, Project ACT's director. "Times are tough. They're very tough."

Such are the stories pouring out of schools and homeless shelters these days, evidence of a crisis that many fear is bound to get worse. Throughout the country, homelessness is rising, with ever more families in ever more towns and cities sleeping in shelters, surfing friends' couches and camping in their cars. In San Bernardino, California, for instance, the City Unified School District counted roughly one-third more homeless students in the 2007-08 school year than in the previous one, part of a stomach-churning trend that has pushed the number of homeless students in the state past 224,000, according to local officials. In Boston the number of families without homes shot up 22 percent, from 3,175 in December 2007 to 3,870 in December 2008. And in New York City, which shelters an astonishing 36,000 homeless people each night (including nearly 16,000 kids), the number of newly homeless families entering the shelter system hit an all-time high in autumn, with the influx in November 44 percent higher than the previous year. Along the way, the total number of homeless families bedding down each night in shelters topped 9,700--the highest number since the city began keeping records more than twenty-five years ago.

By most accounts, there's little mystery to this rise in the ranks of shelter seekers. It's the economy and, more specifically, the recession and the foreclosure crisis. As people have lost their paychecks, or as the homes they were renting were foreclosed--most of today's homeless foreclosure victims are renters who were evicted, even though they paid rent, because their landlord had not kept up with the mortgage--their tenuous grip on stability has slipped away. And many housing experts think this could be just the beginning. Because the recession is far from over; because the unemployment rate hit 7.2 percent in December and is expected to climb; because the foreclosure crisis has more misery to dole out; and because homelessness is a lagging indicator--families tend to cling to their homes as long as they can, forgoing food, clothes and medication just to keep their roof--the number of homeless families will likely continue to spike.

But there's another essential point, one that bears fundamentally on how we understand--and tackle--this crisis. While the recession has swollen the ranks of the homeless population, modern homelessness has been with us for more than a quarter-century. Long before subprime mortgages, credit default swaps and the most recent stock market crash, the United States was in the grip of the longest period of sustained mass homelessness since the Great Depression. Indeed, even before the current economic downturn some 3.5 million Americans (including 1.4 million children) experienced homelessness during the course of a year. For this we can thank not a periodic dip in the business cycle but an affordable-housing crunch spawned by nearly three decades of slash-and-burn housing policy.

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