The forgotten American homeless

November 28, 2011

CBS’s 60 Minutes showed a heartbreaking story last night that described several homeless families with children in Florida. The segment, entitled “Hard Times Generation: Families living in cars” (embedded above), detailed families living at the absolute edge of economic survival as they slept in their cars, in hotel rooms and with neighbors. In a deflating economy with few available jobs, they are the invisible underbelly. Big kudos to 60 Minutes for bringing their plight to our attention.

In 1933, a freshly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a paralyzed nation with the following words:

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.

By global standards, America is very rich, but we need to ask if our priorities are in the right place. In June 2011 the Florida Council on Homelessness issued their annual report to the governor and legislature. They reported (page 3):

Floridians face a short-term crisis today, and need our help now.

*49,117 school-aged children were identified as homeless in the 2009-2010 school year in our state; this indicates a 19% increase from 2008-2009.

*Florida has the third highest number of homeless persons by state in our country, with over 58,000 persons homeless on any given day

*12,240 military veterans were homeless in Florida in 2009, ranking Florida second in the country for the number of homeless veterans.

Generally, support for the homeless is funded at the local and state levels. These funds are distributed as grants to non-profit organizations who provide direct services. Funding has always lagged need, especially as the economy has continued to stagnate. The Florida Council on Homelessness reported that a total of $300 million was spent in 2010, with about $85 million of that coming from federal grants. But the state of Florida only allocated $8.4 million to staff the Department of Children and Families Homelessness program (page 22) and make pass-through grants to local organizations.

The state of Florida has a budget of $70 billion, of which approximately one-third is passed through from the federal government, mainly for Medicaid. In contrast to the state’s $8 million for the homeless, Florida spent $692 million on prisons in 2011. The homeless don’t seem to be a priority at the national level either. For example the Obama administration has requested roughly $3.2 billion in foreign aid for Afghanistan in fiscal year 2012, on top of whatever the war costs the Defense Department.

Governments are spending heavily, and I’m not sure they have chosen the most important priorities on which to spend our tax dollars. After seeing the 60 Minutes report Americans are surely wondering why we can’t provide for our own people. It’s an important question as more and more families slip off the economic tightrope.


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The story last night has really effected me and I’ve thought deeply about it most of the day. I could not believe my eyes or ears and something needs to be done. Is there anyway I could help this family (Austin and Arielle) out in some way. Possibly food or clothing or something. I want to help in some way! I thought maybe I could deliver goods to them but how would I find them?? I have a travel trailer sitting in my driveway . . . Is there a camp ground near them who would discount there stay or provide a site for free??? Hopefully someone will write back as to what I can do to aid in any way. I am a Navy Veteran who served my country proudly. No person especially a child should be in this situation!!

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Hi Anonymous:

Thank you for your comment. It was a heartbreaking story of families really struggling. If you feel you can share your possessions you might want to call your local homeless shelter and ask the director if they know of a local family you can assist. It’s fine to give anonymously. If we all gave a little we could relieve a lot of suffering.

Thank you especially for your service to our nation. It’s how we stay we strong.

Posted by Cate Long | Report as abusive

The U.S. has uncounted millions of homeless. However, churches and charities and the government import the poor of other countries and call them refugees. The U.S. should declare the homeless Americans as refugees. Then maybe the homeless would get some help.

Posted by stevadore33 | Report as abusive

Yes we have not counted many homeless. Charities have been doing a lot on this.

Posted by rudraksha | Report as abusive

We shun people less fortunate than ourselves until we have misfortune. Then and only thendo our eyes open to the often nearly impossible task of recouperating from a downfall. We then have compassion and understanding because we are now in the same boat. When we as a nation look away because more of us have bettered our fortunes the number of less fortunate grow out of control because weve neglected to reach out and and help others keep up. We look to our government to solve the problem but we have seen all too often government cant manage itself and surely cant see to the needs of the individual so white wash programs to address the mass problem are created. They dont solve the problem. It is up to people to put together individual groups to assist those in need. If you know someone in need close to you reach out. Touch someone, talk to your friends and find someone in need, try and get to know them and think of something useful that can help. Sometimes its the simplist thing that can do the most and its not always about money. But more than anything as a nation as a whole we need to stop measuring our value by the dollar.nothing is more disheartening than to be shut out in society because of financial mishap. It crushes the human spirit and imbeds a sorrowful bitterness. We do this even unintentionally because we view people with misfortunes not as people but objects. We know nothing of the tears shsed by the mother or father who cant provide for his or her family adequately. We dont hear the inner voice of that tiny child who wants to be included in that pajama party but cant go because she has to be sitting in social services trying to get help from a stagnent useless government service. This problem wasnt created by money nor can be solved by money. It can only be fixed by you the individual each and all reaching out and pullingthese people back into our society and making them welcome and assisting with intelligent ideas and effort. No social program will do it. These arent cows that can live mostly all in the same manner. Theyre your fellow human and someday they may very well be reaching for you to save you from a downfall.

Posted by MrEz | Report as abusive

The problem of homelessness was created by economic opportunities and /or difficulties and always is. Changes in the New York City real estate industry during the 70’s and 80’s forced many SROs (single room occupancy) renters out on the street as their low rent hotel buildings and former townhouses were sold to well heeled owners during a city wide rush to condo ownership. Landlords found they could get rich and sell out by converting their buildings to condos. They didn’t have to worry ab bout rent control. That was one of the contributing factors, over the last few decades, to the increase in bad risk mortgages. I was at Columbia during the late 70s and remember hearing the real estate expert who ran a lecture course praising the possibilities of condo conversion as a near cure all for social ills. It sounded like good reasoning at the time. It was thought that a person with a mortgage would be more responsible for the welfare of the unit, building, and neighborhood than was typical of residents in public housing projects.

In the 80’s it was possible for a single family to occupy a brownstone that might have housed a dozen or more people. Brownstones are very large buildings and can measure about 20 feet wide by 60 feet deep with up to five levels. That’s 6 to 7 thousand square feet for a couple with a child or two.

The real estate collapse, brought about by the collective greed or speculative mania of almost everyone who owned real estate, has also meant the collapse of affordable housing as well.

Affordable housing is never popular and taxpayer funded projects have ceased as far as I know. The economy is encouraging “us versus them” and for the first time in my life I am seeing a society with a “great unwashed”. I can’t say I see it personally to a large degree but even in the rural area where I am, owners are asking very high rents for old buildings. Some people I know have moved to the edge of town into the woods and are now living in squalid conditions. I don’t have a large house at all but even asking people to share will make problems with the town. Most people don’t have that much freedom to do with their apartments or houses as many might think. Zoning rules and occupancy requirements can stand in the way.

The affluent are living in a world that is very secure and privileged while an increasing percentage of the population is facing ever increasing insecurity. After a while their numbers will dwarf the secure and that will be when the well placed will want to try to rid themselves of the “plaque of locusts”.

Cate Long’s article is one of the few in Reuters that even looked at the non-invested in US society.

The affluent can never seem to acquire enough security and will always define up the “essentials, haven’t you noticed? And the Republicans and the Tea Party seem to hate anything but their own incomes and security.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

High time we had this discussion. Thank you, Ms. Long.

Much of this growing problem is due to a lack of jobs. While drug abuse and skyrocketing rent contribute, unemployment and bankruptcy from medical bills are structural problems with our society that can be fixed. Obamacare is an attempt to fix the later but our entire way of doing business is a problem for the unemployment crisis.

Our tax code is a perfect example. We tax payroll, something we want, and we indirectly subsidize pollution (something we don’t want) by making energy artificially cheap. Capital gains are taxed less than income and capital investment is subsidized through write-offs. The tax structure seems to encourage everything BUT employment. Alternate tax structures could help a lot. If we taxed transactions and carbon instead of payroll, we could help the situation.

Of course, this isn’t enough by its self. But in conjunction with a coordinated effort to promote industries, practices, and policies that encouraged employment we could begin to address the structural problems that we do have control of.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

A lot of it is lack of jobs but a lot of it too is simple misfortune, and inadequate social supports for people who run into trouble.

The kids on 60 minutes had lost their mother, and the dad didn’t want to show his face, which suggests he’s not coping well. And that girl is clearly holding it all together for the three of them, which she won’t be able to do for much longer, I reckon. I think she’s 12.

The United States is a very harsh society for people who lose their jobs, or get sick, or find themselves in trouble in one way or another. And there doesn’t seem to be much communication between the people who are living with difficulty, and those who aren’t.

I think the problem in the United States is that there’s no longer any social mobility. So if disaster strikes, that’s it. And that’s incredibly bad news for the nation, because it’s the kids – it’s always the kids – who suffer the most. You change the nature of the population through inaction.

This is how prostitutes are made of course. And a lot of murder, disappearances.

That girl, for example. 60 minutes think they’ve done her a favour. Well I hope so, but I reckon all they’ve done is set her up for exploitation.

it’s also important that one third of the homeless kids are in Florida.

If you work in certain industries, like construction, you become very aware of situations like this, how easily they are created, and how common they are, but if you stay stuck in an office tower all day it’s not surprising you don’t know or understand what’s going on around you. You need to get out more, talk to the types of people you wouldn’t normally have anything to do with. Big wide world out there.

Posted by SueSueSue | Report as abusive

One of the best things the United States could do is promote microfinance, and shift lending away from the major retail banks towards credit unions and alterantive types of financing shops.

It’s amazing what people can pull off if they are given half a chance. I think offering microfinance to homeless people is a brilliant idea, and would go a long way to solving the problem.

Because people aren’t stupid, they do what they have to do, and that means crime if there’s no alternative. No kid WANTS to become a whore. If there’s some kind of lending program out there that allows people to create little businesses or services, they’ll go for that instead.

And these are the types of people that pay back their debts, because they know the value of a dollar, and the value of an opportunity.

Unlike America’s major banks, investment brokers, and world class Grade A top tier kleptocrats.

Posted by SueSueSue | Report as abusive

What I’m talking about is lending that family enough money, on preferential terms, to buy something like a leaf blower or some garden tools or a power washer. With interest rates at 2 pct, providing this kind of financial assistance is not exactly hardship for most working people, and won’t put you at risk of homelessness yourself if the borrower defaults. Unlike the major investment banks…..yada yada yada.

That leaf blower or power washer will allow a family like the one on 60 minutes to make enough money each day to feed and clothe themselves, and in not very long, they’ll have enough to offer other services, and be back in a house with some personal and financial stability.

Posted by SueSueSue | Report as abusive

I am a bit confused by the statistics provided:

49,117 homeless children + 12,240 homeless veterans already exceeds the 58,000 homeless in Florida figure that is cited.

Posted by jaham | Report as abusive

When will we prosecute the criminals who got those families here, both in the government for making such rules that allowed the financial fraud to flourish and the criminals outside it who took advantage of the system that creates a situation where families get into such poverty levels through no fault of their own.

When will we help the homeless and other families in need instead of bailing out the financial institutions and saving the financial industry elite who caused this?

Posted by American213 | Report as abusive

Not to worry, as soon as a Repub is in the White House, the media will focus on the homeless problem again.

Posted by ticarot | Report as abusive