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The Bag People

There are 7,00,000 homeless and the number is increasing

The Bag People
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JANUARY'S unprecedented cold wave had America's tens of thousands of homeless men and women refining the art of staying warm amidst sub-zero temperatures. Few people displayed the art better than Philip, 38, who spends his days and nights on the streets of Washington DC. Philip, a black, lives in a park within minutes of a stylish shopping area. Otherwise eager to talk, he refuses to give his last name for fear of embarrassing his family. A street person for three years, he says: "I have no job and no education. This is the only way I know to survive without money."

 And while a man in a wheelchair shares this urge for anonymity, introducing himself as just Don, it is obvious that joblessness is not the only reason to live on the streets. Alice, 50, has camped in Lafayette Park for four years to draw attention to "nuclear disarmament". She is surrounded by pamphlets and blankets and has rigged up a little tent for warmth and keeps a dog for company. When it's really cold, she goes to a shelter.

A decade has passed since the passage of the first federal legislation to address the problem of homelessness. But, in communities across the country, more people are living on the streets than ever before. Those who work with the homeless warn that cuts in programmes for the poor threaten to make the problem worse in the years ahead.

According to most estimates, there are at any given time, about 7,00,000 homeless in the US. Using data gathered in Philadelphia and New York shelters, Prof Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania found that seven million Americans may have been homeless, at least for a brief period, in the past five years. Housing officials have little doubt about the cause of the rise in the number of the homeless in the country: states are reducing spending, programmes for unemployment insurance have been pared, and welfare and housing subsidies have been sharply reduced.

The general perception is that most homeless people suffer from mental illness. But a survey of 29 cities indicates that while mental illness is disproportionately high among the homeless, only one in four can be put in that category. Substance abuse is a much bigger problem, affecting nearly half the floating population. The survey found that many people living in shelters have jobs but are not making enough to pay rent at market rates. The wait to get into public housing is a year and a half, and longer for subsidised housing.

According to Marianne Gleason, director of the National Homeless Coalition, families with children comprise over a third of the homeless population, more than double the percentage five years ago. She says: "Unless we address systemic solutions we will never resolve homelessness."

Handling the homeless population is left to city governments and non-profit organisations whose under-funded shelters and over-burdened soup kitchens depend on charitable services and churches. In Washington's shelters, beds for walk-in street people are filled every night and a number of them have to be turned away. Others prefer to remain outdoors, citing unsafe conditions and restrictive regulations in the shelters. It is considered a violation of their basic rights to move them indoors forcibly.

There is evidence that existing programmes do help. But activists say there has been little success in keeping people from becoming homeless. Last year, the government allocated a billion dollars to programmes for the homeless. It is uncertain how much will be spent in 1996, but even if it matches 1995 spending it will not be able to keep up with increasing demand.

Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, says: "There isn't enough money for everything we'd like to fund. We're going to try to sustain existing programmes. But to balance our budget, there will be pressure to cut some. Every time I walk past a park in the capital, on a cold winter's day, and see people sleeping in the wet steam heat of a ventilation grate or sitting on benches, I scratch my head and say, 'Where have we gone wrong?'" And that should be a thorn in the side of the superpower.

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