Sunday, December 14, 2008

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.


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.”

The survey, by the District-based Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, also shows the number of families needing short-term help from one of about 26 shelters in the city increased by more than 58 percent since last year, from 89 to 141 people.

Mr. Tredwell also said roughly 49 percent of homeless families served locally are single women with children, like 33-year-old Brandi Barrow.

Miss Barrow lives in a suburban D.C. shelter with two of her five young children. Not long ago, she lived in her own trailer in Charlestown, W.Va. But diminishing job prospects in the fading economy and bouts of drug use, she said, have brought her to this point.

Flight attendant Rosalyne Jones, 42, also never expected to be have to deal with homelessness.

She had been making a good living and working out of Rochester, N.Y., until fall 2007.

“I always wanted to travel the world, to meet different people and to learn about different cultures,” she said. “It was a very fun job.”

Then she suddenly became overwhelmed with fatigue.

Her doctor said she was simply tired from overwork, so she sought a second opinion from an acupuncturist — only to get the same diagnosis.

Miss Jones figured she had about four months of savings, so she decided to quit her job and rest.

She had no idea, however, that her decision would coincide with the unraveling of the economy and the rapidly increasing costs of food, energy and other necessities that depleted her savings.

“Things started getting really bad, and I realized, ‘Girl, you need to do something, something needs to change,’” she said. “I had applied to dozens of places, airlines, grocery stores, Homeland Security. And I had got a few responses, but somehow it never panned out.”

Unable to find work and feeling that she had overstayed her welcome with family, Miss Jones considered moving where she had potential job offers and better odds of again becoming a flight attendant.

When Alexandria-based Catholic Charities said it could find a place for her to live while she looked for work, Miss Jones hopped a bus to the District.

Her first stop was the group’s John L. Young Shelter for the homeless, then the Mount Carmel House transitional home in Northwest.

Miss Jones hated the stares of passers-by when she and 95 other women lined up outside the shelter each day to receive a meal.

“When you’re making a judgment without knowing me, it hurts,” she said. “You just never know what someone’s going through.”

With the temperature often too cold for living on the streets and the worsening economy resulting in more layoffs, November was a cruel month for the homeless in Washington.

D.C. General Hospital’s hypothermia shelter served an average of 41 families a day, compared with roughly three a day in November 2007.

The single-day record in November 2007 was six, but this November the Southeast shelter served 58 families on two different days.

Gary Hines, associate director of the Father McKenna Center, in Northwest, said shelter officials have seen an “unnatural market increase” in the number of clients served this fall.

“Since 2005, we would serve around 68 clients each night on a monthly basis,” he said. “However, in just the past few months, we have been serving more than 100 people every day.”

Nan Roman, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, also says the economy is the single-biggest factor contributing to homelessness in the country.

Shelters also are struggling. Besides needing donations and help from municipalities that are facing budget shortfalls, the shelters have been overwhelmed by requests for help in paying utility bills through energy-assistance programs. Area shelters said the demand increased by 40 percent from August to November, compared with the same time in 2007.

Catholic Charities officials said they were lucky to have started work on a 50-unit, affordable-housing center on the grounds of St. Martin of Tours Parish before the financial crisis hit with full force.

“We’re calling this the Miracle at St. Andrews because of all the economic and financial challenges this city has endured,” said Edward J. Orzechowski, the group’s chief executive officer. “It’s truly a miracle what we were able to accomplish.”

Mr. Winbush and Miss Jones recently enjoyed a turn of success. Howard University Hospital finally hired him, and she is working for Frontier Airlines.

However, others will take their spots in homeless shelters, many having lost their residences to foreclosure.

Prince George’s County, for example, is home to 35 percent of Maryland’s foreclosures, the largest share in the state.

The county’s chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) said more than 600 people this year have requested foreclosure assistance, compared with less than 50 in 2006.

“We’re basically having to act as social workers and serve a very diverse base of clients,” ACORN spokesman Joe Cox said. “Many clients once earned up to $200,000. But with the severity of the economic collapse, they have found their circumstances have drastically turned for the worse.”

Eliseo Jordado is one such client.

Mr. Jordado, whose construction company’s gross annual income dropped to $40,000 from $180,000 over the past few years, is now six months behind on his home mortgage.

“We just can’t find jobs to do,” he said. “Nobody is buying and nobody can sell, so it creates tremendous hardship on all of us in the industry.”

Mr. Jordado, who has two sons living in El Salvador, said many houses on his block in Landover Hills have been foreclosed, and he fears his will be next.

“I have no place to stay if my home is foreclosed,” he said. “I’m afraid I will be living on the street.”

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