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Homelessness Crisis Deepens

Helen Ubiñas

September 18, 2008

Show of hands from anyone who saw a connection between this week's screaming headlines about financial giants crumbling and the more modestly featured story about a New London homeless shelter requiring anyone seeking entry to pass a sobriety test.

Yeah, I didn't, either — at least not initially.

At first glance, city officials' decision to administer Breathalyzer tests came off as indignity overkill.

News flash folks: A lot of the people who walk into shelters are addicted to drugs and alcohol. And to be honest, I've been in my share of these places and no one should be judged, or turned away, for having a few before spending the night.

But then I read some of the comments from the homeless who stood in line Monday to be tested in New London. Quite a few were staying in the city shelter with spouses and small children, and the added hurdle gave them some small comfort that they wouldn't have to deal with unruly roommates on top of everything else.

I also remembered Megan Sabonis, a young woman I met on Garden Street in Hartford a few weeks back. She left a shelter in Waterbury because she didn't feel safe there with her 6-month-old daughter.

"It's hard enough being in one of these places without being scared, too," she said.

It'd be nice if shelters could accommodate everyone. But that's the thing about homelessness, isn't it? It's a lot more complex than the stereotypical picture of single men and women wrestlingtheir demons. And as the economy goes through dramatic changes, so too will the ever-changing demographics of homelessness — which brings me to that connection.

In April, the National Coalition for the Homeless released what it called a national call to action. It not only saw the connection between homelessness and foreclosures, which topped more than 2 million last year, it conducted an in-depth study to sound the alarm.

The coalition's just not sure anyone's hearing it. It's worried that no one seems to be making the connection and preparing for the inevitable — many more families, many more changes needed to accommodate those losing their homes."These are economic earthquakes of crisis proportions, and invisible in the foreclosure crisis are the people — homeowners and renters — who are becoming homeless," the president of the coalition said in the report.

In the survey, about three of every five coalitions that deal with the homeless reported an increase in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began in 2007. Here, advocates said they're not sure how much to blame foreclosures for the increase in homeless families, but it only takes a quick glance at the real estate section to know we'd better get ready.

The debate over Breathalyzers in New London might seem pretty tangential to the big news grabbing people's attention — the meltdown on Wall Street. But when you add up foreclosures and bank collapses and credit crunches, it's going to add up to something pretty bleak.

Long after we've lost interest in Lehman Brothers and AIG, the people who generally feel the brunt of these moments will still be feeling it. Blowing into Breathalyzers. Hoping they get in for the night.

And if they don't, they could always follow Cleveland's lead.

The foreclosure crisis there has led to a cruel irony for the homeless. On any given night they are outnumbered by vacant homes. So, they take advantage of the opportunity by becoming squatters. It's better than some of the alternatives, considering that sometimes the heat, lights and water are still working.

"That's what you call convenient," James Bertan told a newspaper there.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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