Changing face of homelessness

Today’s global financial crisis has spawned massive dislocations of many new and surprising types. The current economic downturn, unlike others in the past, is hurting not just the already-poor but also people who were considered safe and well off. Once mighty banks have been brought low — or destroyed. And millions of people who were living the American dream — as homeowners — are heading for the street.

Literally.

The images of homelessness — sunken-cheeked men railing against imaginary voices — now include the specter of the family next door — former homeowners and the recently unemployed. These once middle-class folks now have been tossed into desperation by the international credit crunch.

And much of it is happening in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

Raymond Winbush, an unemployed emergency-room technician who likes to read Shakespeare, looks at the other homeless men at the Central Union Mission in Northwest and wonders aloud how his life has come to this.

“I was raised with the idea that if you had a job, that if you did it well … you could make it. You didn’t need to worry,” says Mr. Winbush, 61, who said he left a steady job at the Maimonides Medical Center in New York to help his sister in Virginia Beach.

Realizing he could not help save her home from foreclosure on the low wages paid in the Tidewater area, Mr. Winbush headed to the District to find work at one of the city’s many hospitals.

He said Howard University Hospital made an offer but couldn’t follow through with a job because of financial reasons. Attempts to find work at Georgetown University, Providence and Sibley Memorial hospitals resulted in similar outcomes.

“This is the first time in my life where I can’t find a job,” says Mr. Winbush, who keeps his interview clothes and other belongings in a rented storage locker. “I don’t know what’s going on. Every time I get close, something happens and I have to start all over again.”

Mr. Winbush feels compassion for the other folks staying at the 80-bedroom shelter, but for himself he feels only shame.

“I can’t stay here,” he says. “As great as the mission has been and as much as the mission has helped me, I don’t belong here. All I need is a job. I don’t care if I have to shovel animal dung, I’ll do it.”

The District’s unemployment rate is 7.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. About 6,000 homeless people live in the city, roughly 250 more than at the same time last year.

“It’s extremely unfortunate with the resources that the capital has available that anyone is unable to sleep in a house or to have a meal every day,” said David Tredwell, the Central Union Mission’s executive director. “It’s more than a shame.”

A recent local survey shows families — particularly single-parent families — are among the hardest hit by the nation’s faltering economy, which started its descent a year ago with failing mortgages, then spread to the financial markets and now to all sectors of the economy. The result has been about 10.5 million people across the country out of work and a national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent — the highest since 1993.

“These are tough times, and the people who often feel the pinch of the economy first are those in single-parent homes,” said Mr. Tredwell. “In the past, when the economy was in better straits, we would see more individualistic causes for homelessness, such as addiction or mental illness. Now economic causes — such as joblessness and high food and energy prices — are driving more and more people out of their homes.”

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