Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More people on S.F. streets newly homeless

More people on S.F. streets newly homeless

Salvation Army Capt. Martin Cooper (center) talks with Po... Vinetta Boice has a cup of coffee from the Salvation Army... Ladoris Perkins (right) and Poncho (left) eat soup from t... Volunteers Anna and Julio Perez of the Salvation Army han...

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Capt. Martin Cooper of the Salvation Army has been handing out free sandwiches and soup near the Civic Center in San Francisco for the last year and a half. Lately he's noticed some troubling changes.

First, he's been running out of food. He used to take 50 sandwiches. Now he takes 500 and it isn't enough. Second, Cooper has been surprised at the folks who are asking for a meal. They're often clean-shaven, well dressed and utterly desperate.

"I guess you could say the face of homelessness has had a face-lift," Cooper said. "I see people coming up to me that I probably would have walked past and not even offered a meal."

Cooper's firsthand experience reinforces new national data. Across the country, the nose-diving economy isn't just causing home foreclosures and stock market dips, it is squeezing people, particularly families, out of their homes. The number of hungry people has also jumped.

There are homeless people who test the sympathies of city residents - the aggressive panhandlers who rack up more than 50 police citations, the severely mentally ill who wander the streets without any help or consequences of their actions.

But as the cold, wet winter weather hits the Bay Area, the city is obligated to reach out to those most in need. Unfortunately, that request comes in the midst of the worst city budget shortage in 70 years.

While it is true that major, hurtful cuts will have to be made, some way must be found to protect these families. The cold logic of a ledger sheet is a poor reply to what Cooper sees in the city's alleys and side streets.

"We were over by the Civic Auditorium," Cooper said, "and there was a guy lying on the sidewalk with a blanket pulled over his head. I leaned down and asked him if he wanted something to eat. He pulled the blanket down and there was a 5-year-old little boy lying with him."

Homeless families

It would be nice to say that is an isolated incident, but it is not. Twenty of 21 cities surveyed for a new report from U.S. Conference of Mayors reported an increase in requests for food, and 59 percent of those requests came from families. In addition, 16 of 25 cities reported a significant increase in homeless families, with San Francisco among the leaders.

"Monday we had 136 families on the waiting list for a shelter," said Dariush Kayhan, the city's homeless policy director. "That's 50 percent more than we had on the list one year ago."

What's more concerning is that, according to the city's Human Services Agency, 62 percent of those on the waiting list are new to the system. They haven't been homeless in San Francisco before.

Philip Mangano, who was appointed executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness by President Bush, said San Francisco has been especially hard hit by what he calls "double trouble:" the loss of 1 million jobs across the country in the last 10 months and the foreclosures from the mortgage crisis.

Tenants in trouble

"It is not so much people who are homeowners," Mangano said. "It is people in a rental situation who were literally oblivious to the fact that their landlord was going to be foreclosed upon. They suddenly get notice that they have 30 days to quit the property. And you know they are not getting their security deposit or last month's rent back."

No wonder the Bay Area, hammered by both job loss and foreclosures, has seen such a jump in homeless families.

"I think a lot of people think (being homeless) is going to be temporary," Cooper said. "They think: I'll be out for a week at most. But you lose your means of communication and your address."

The good news - if you can call it that - is that most of the families are not on the street. Kayhan said his data shows that 41 percent are temporarily living with family or friends and most of the rest are in some kind of a stopgap situation like a short-term shelter, hotel or even the family car.

Indications are that we are only seeing the beginning of what the faltering economy will do to those living on the edge of homelessness. While the family shelter waiting list is longest for families in San Francisco, single men, particularly returning veterans, continue to be most likely to end up on the street.

They are forming the new group that Cooper sees during his food rounds. Recently he reached down to a man on the sidewalk and asked him if he wanted something to eat. The man asked if he had to pay for the food. Told that it was free, he admitted that he hadn't eaten in three days. Then he began to weep.

"You see people now and you wonder where they came from, how they got here," Cooper said. "People say to me this work must be gratifying. But I never go home gratified. I go home feeling guilty."

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