Homeless during the holidays

Nathan Zoschke

Sour economy has led to increase in homelessness

More than 250 men, most of them strangers, sat together as they ate their Thanksgiving dinner.

Among them were artists, drug addicts, college students, former businessmen, veterans, former athletes and others whose lives had hit rock bottom.

The unadorned interior, cinderblock walls, concrete floors and fluorescent lights lacked the homey feel of grandma’s dining room.

Those who entered the facility weren’t greeted by family members’ hugs.

Instead, they passed through a metal detector.

No, they weren’t in a prison or boot camp, but at City Union Mission, one of several area homeless shelters.

One week earlier, Nov. 14-20, the National Coalition for the Homeless and National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness co-sponsored National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

Its purpose was to raise hunger and homelessness awareness.

City Union Mission operates three shelters. One is the Men’s Shelter at 10th and Troost streets. The second is a family shelter that houses single women and families. The third is a farm in Warsaw, Mo for men recovering from addiction.

A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated the homeless population to be more than 640,000 on any given night.

That number, in recent years, has increased, and so has traffic at City Union Mission.

The high foreclosure and unemployment rates have created many unlikely victims of homelessness.

Another report by the HUD found the number of families in shelters increased 30 percent from 2007 to 2009.

“The face of homelessness has changed,” said Men’s Center shelter administrator Greg Miller. “It’s no longer just the stereotypical inebriated skid row bum from the gutter.”

The Men’s Center has become increasingly diverse.

“One of the unique things about working here is that I’ve never seen as much talent in my life,” Miller said. “We’ve seen a lot of accomplished, successful people who’ve hit a wall somewhere.”

Judy Ancel, director the Institute of Labor Studies at UMKC, said she believes the loss of secure, working class jobs has put more people on the streets.

“The low-income are always the first and greatest impacted during a recession,” she said.

Ancel also blames government policies of deregulation, along with the offshoring and outsourcing of jobs.

“They shift wealth upwards,” she said.

While the number of homeless families has increased, single men remain a majority on the streets.

In 2007, they comprised 67 percent of the homeless population, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Among single men, mental disabilities and drug and alcohol addictions remain serious problems.

Miller said shelter volunteers have found crack pipes in the bathrooms and empty alcohol bottles in the courtyard.

In the mid 1980s, Miller himself struggled with a cocaine addiction.

He had a family and a stable job, but when his wife kicked him out, Miller’s addiction went from being an occasional thrill to a daily necessity.

“I knew I needed help,” Miller said. “I just didn’t know how to stop. I was in and out of places like this.”

Miller’s rehabilitation was gradual.

“I don’t have a definitive moment,” Miller said. “It was a continual effort and continual striving. Eventually, months and years passed that I had been clean.”

Five years ago, he accepted the position of shelter administrator at City Union Mission.

Miller said his past experience has given him patience for those recovering from addiction.

One addict may go through rehabilitation several times before coming clean.

“We don’t want to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Miller said.

Running a shelter is no thin-skinned job. Fights break out occasionally, and the police have been called at times.

“The people who work at the shelter are [like]soldiers,” Miller said. “We have four staff members who are called upon to handle 250 or more men. Some are very challenging. The people who work in a homeless shelter have to be cut out.”

For those on the streets, getting out of homelessness is a struggle.

“What’s so discouraging is that we’ve lost that sense of community that we need to take care of each other,” Ancel said. “It makes it much harder to deal with homelessness. The homeless have become ‘the other’ and not part of us.”

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