No one knows exactly how many Americans do not have a permanent place to live. This homelessness continues although many efforts are being made to end it. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. The problem of homeless people is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
Homelessness continues to be one of the most important problems facing America. The most recent national population study said about one-hundred-seventy-thousand people do not have a place to live. But some experts say about two-million people in the United States have no homes. They say officials who count the population cannot find many people who live on the streets. Experts say homelessness is a temporary crisis for most people. But it is a continuing condition for others.
The United States Conference of Mayors is an organization seeking to improve community life. The group recently studied twenty-five cities. It released a report last month. The study said eighteen of the cities reported an increased number of requests by homeless people for places to stay during the past year. These requests for emergency shelter increased an average of nineteen percent. This was the largest increase in ten years.
Officials in all of the cities said they expected that requests for emergency shelter and food assistance will increase again during this year. The amount of time people spent without a home also increased last year in most of the cities.
The study showed that the largest groups of homeless people are single men and families with children. A very small percentage are young people who have run away from home.
Homeless people living on the streets suffer from the heat, cold, hunger and the threat of crime. In Chicago, Illinois, for example, a number of homeless people have frozen to death in the city's poorest areas over the years.
Government and social welfare experts have been trying for years to solve the problem of homelessness. But as experts dispute how to do this, the crisis grows larger. For example, the homeless population of San Francisco, California has increased by more than thirty-three percent in the past two years. San Francisco has more than seven-thousand people with no place to live.
On the opposite coast, New York City also has a large homeless population. Each winter officials must deal with the risk of many of them freezing to death. The city responded to such a crisis two years ago.
Officials launched an emergency housing program. Its goal was to provide homeless families with temporary living space in apartment buildings. But the problem grew. Temporary living space became long-term living space.
About twenty-five percent of New York City's homeless families now live in these apartments. A number of the buildings have conditions that threaten safety. New York has spent millions of dollars on the program. Yet most of its homeless families still have no place to escape from the cold.
Most experts say Americans are homeless for a number of reasons. One reason is economics. The nation's economy is not growing. At the same time, housing costs are high. Many workers have lost their jobs and cannot find new jobs.
However, many homeless people do have jobs. The study by the Conference of Mayors found that more than twenty percent of homeless people had jobs. But these people did not earn enough money to pay for housing. Or they had to spend all their money on medical treatment for AIDS or other diseases.
Experts say some people are homeless by choice. They choose to live outside normal social groups. These people usually have lost connections with their family and friends. Many suffer from mental illness. Or, they may be dependent on alcohol or drugs.
Homelessness in America began to develop into a widespread problem in the nineteen-seventies. That was when health officials in many states decided to move about four-hundred-thousand patients suffering from mental illness out of hospitals.
Many of these people could not care for themselves without help. Many could not get or keep a job. And there were not enough local mental health programs to help them. Soon many former mental patients were living on the streets. The federal government has estimated that almost forty percent of homeless adults show signs of serious mental problems.
Today, many private groups work to help homeless people. For example, a religious organization called the Salvation Army operates throughout the nation. It offers food and many services. It has emergency shelters that provide overnight sleeping space for many people in need.
Communities and other private social agencies also offer these kinds of shelters. However, some homeless people refuse to spend the night in shelters. Some people do not want to obey the shelter rules. Others are afraid they will get diseases in the shelters. Still other people stay out of shelters because they fear being robbed or attacked. Some homeless people think it is safer to live on the streets. However, in recent years, many people who live on the streets have been attacked and killed.
Activist groups say homeless people are victims of crime far more often than they cause crime. Many members of the public, however, fear the homeless. They do not want to have homeless people near them. They say these people are dirty and they smell bad. They say homeless people often ask them for money and then insult or threaten them if they refuse.
Some communities traditionally have shown concern for the homeless. But some of these cities are beginning to limit or reject the homeless.
For example, the city of Santa Monica, California has had a friendly policy toward the homeless. But recently the community enacted two new laws aimed at limiting the presence of homeless people. Many Santa Monica citizens said the community was becoming a center for thousands of people they could not care for.
Reports from around the nation say Santa Monica is not alone in passing or strengthening measures against the homeless. Media reports say the growing number of homeless in many areas has affected other Americans' feelings toward them. Many people are showing less sympathy for the homeless than in the past.
Experts say there may be about ten-thousand homeless people in the nation's capital. One old woman said she had to leave her home when she could not make the payments. She spends her time pushing a cart with wheels around the streets of Washington, DC. This cart holds old clothes, many paper containers and a toy animal.
The old woman says that when she lost her home, she lost everything important to her in life.
Anthony Williams is the mayor of Washington, DC. He said a major effort is needed to solve this problem. The effort must include additional federal money for housing, job training, drug treatment and mental health services. He said many agencies and organizations must work together to help homeless people improve their lives.
The United States Conference of Mayors recently called for action by the Bush Administration, Congress, state and local governments, private organizations and all Americans. The mayors called on Congress to increase aid to the homeless as part of an effort to end homelessness within ten years.
They called on Congress and the Administration to enact a national housing program which would provide jobs for tens of thousands of people. They called on Congress to improve federal anti-hunger programs. And they urged all Americans to give their time, money and food to help fight hunger and homelessness.
The mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, Thomas Menino, said the world's richest and most powerful nation must find a way to meet the needs of all its people.
This program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.