In the first major census of people living on the streets since the recession, thousands of volunteers across the country are fanning out in the thick of night this week to count the most desperate members of their communities.
On the streets and in shelters, volunteers conducting the count in the wintry dead of night have found an untold numbers of hard-luck stories from those homeless for the first time, working poor victimized by the foreclosure and unemployment crises.
“I call it the double trouble,” said Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “You would have to be naive to believe that the loss of over 850,000 homes and over two million jobs wouldn't have an impact.”
In Camden, N.J., a city that every economic boom bypasses and every bust seems to embrace, the number of people living in an encampment near downtown has grown over the last year, according to the regulars.
“They seem to keep coming,” said Neil Floyd, a 53-year-old former truck driver who is unable to find work and has lived under a tarp for a year.
In Wichita, Kan., Sandra Cox, 47, who receives $517 a month in disability payments, ended up in a homeless shelter in December. Her son, the breadwinner, had lost his job at a tuxedo warehouse that went out of business and could only find temporary part-time work.
In Portland, Ore., inside a crowded homeless shelter, an 81-year-old grandmother, Ilene Reeve, was spending the night feeling lucky to have a bed. Her only other choice was to sleep in the lobby of a post office. She says she can't find a job, nor can she survive on the $754 a month she receives in Social Security.
In this economy, most cities are reporting a huge increase in the need for shelter. They include working poor renters who end up getting evicted when their landlords default.
But some advocates for homeless people say the biannual, federally mandated counts taking place on a single night or at some point this week will omit the majority of homeless people, including the recession's recent victims.
The count, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires for any community seeking federal funds for homeless programs, includes those on the street as well as people in homeless shelters, transitional housing, and in hospitals, mental wards and jails.
The census, which HUD has required since 2005, does not count those doubled up with friends or relatives, staying in hotels or garages or in any other makeshift, inadequate housing.