| Fabienne Faur |
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Philana Hall vividly remembers the day, one year ago this month, when she was homeless in Washington and overwhelmed with despair.
“That was the morning when we just didn’t know where we were going to be that night,” the 23-year-old recalled.
“We were both out until about 12 o’clock that night – making calls, asking people – and no one would take us in as a family.”
Hall and her three-year-old Gabriel eventually found refuge at a homeless shelter. Her husband, 27, and their seven-year-old boy bunked down with relatives.
The African-American family has since been reunited – in March, they moved into a four-room apartment run by Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington charity.
But before that, life was a precarious series of low-paying jobs, nights on friends’ sofas and frustration.
Such families represent “the hidden homeless,” said Heather O’Malley, development director at Doorways for Women and Families, a charity in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia.
“Families are doubled up, tripled up, quadrupled up in apartments that are meant for only one person of one family,” O’Malley told AFP.
“They’ll sleep on the floors, the couches, in bathtubs. They are sleeping in cars. And every day they don’t know where they are going to end up.”
In the greater Washington area, on a single day in June, some 1,900 families were homeless, up 11 per cent from a year earlier, according to a report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
And Hall’s two boys are among 2.5 million children – one in 30 youngsters in America – who experienced homeless at some point in 2013.
For the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), that figure is “historic.” Of all industrialised nations, it says, the United States has the most homeless people.
Dawud – a 52-year-old military veteran turned cook who has been jobless for eight months, and who provided only his first name – said he was evicted from his home three years ago.
A single parent, he and his 12-year-old daughter lived temporarily in the living room of friends before ultimately finding housing in Arlington, across the Potomac River from the US capital.
“It hurts because you feel like you’re a failure in life,” he said, summing up his experience with homelessness.
“Living with other people, you feel you’re not part of society. I felt like I was failing my daughter as a parent.”
“The economic downturn in recent years has made it very difficult for families to survive,” said Yvonne Vissing, a Salem State University sociologist who sits on the NCH board.
“People can work 40 hours a week at a full-time job, at minimum wage, and still be below the poverty line,” she said.
“Most homeless people do work but they cannot keep up with the costs of living. Housing affordability and accessibility is a major problem.”
To afford a $2,000-a-month three-room apartment in Arlington, one would have to work 70 hours a week at the minimum wage of $7.25, O’Malley said. Transit and day care costs come on top of that.
“As soon as this cycle begins, it’s almost impossible to get out when you’re just trying to catch up,” she said.
“Before you know it, you’re facing eviction and you don’t know where to go.”
Children pay the highest price.
Malnourished on cheap processed food, with no place to play or do homework from classes they often miss, they are also four times at greater risk to suffer illness and delayed development, the NCH says.
“A lot of adults in this situation think they can cover up what’s going on. They think they can hide the stress, the fear, the anxiety,” O’Malley said.
“But the children are smart. They absorb things and they take up what their parents are trying to hide,” she said.
“They also feel the stress sometimes – they think it’s their fault that they don’t have a safe place to go. They internalise their worries, and it leads to a lot of learning disabilities.”
Hall’s son Richard – a thin, shy but good-looking lad – is a case in point.
“Richard has had a problem with expressing himself,” Hall said.
“He would have times where he just cried. Little things would make him cry. He did it at school, in public. You knew what it was, but he didn’t want to say it.”
Youngsters can and do adapt, but help must come swiftly – not just in the form of permanent housing but also with therapy, budget-managing advice for parents and help with drawing up a resume to find steady employment.
Hall – who has resumed her studies and gave birth last month to another son, Kobe – can stay where she is now for two years.
Going forward, she envisions having her own home.
“When I leave here, I want a house with a front yard and a back yard, because I love to cook out,” she said.