by Jan Lewis
Have you ever seen a homeless person? Most of us have — if not in person, we have seen them on television or in the movies.
The images are stark. Disheveled men wearing multiple layers of clothing, sleeping on benches in the park or under a bridge. Maybe it was a panhandler on the side of a busy roadway begging for food, or a bag lady pushing a shopping cart filled with her life possessions.
They mumble to themselves — perhaps they are drunk or strung out on drugs or schizophrenic. We turn our eyes away because we don’t want to see them. We cross to the other side of the street because they make us uncomfortable.
I recently attended a meeting where the Wyandotte Homeless Services Coalition presented its report on “The State of Our Homeless.” The report, commissioned by the mayor and commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, explodes many of the myths and preconceptions about the homeless population and reveals the true face of this often-invisible problem.
Yes, some of the homeless do suffer from mental-health and substance-abuse issues. Some are chronically homeless, preferring the freedom of the streets to the structure and comforts of a more traditional lifestyle.
But many of the homeless today do not fit this picture. Some of the unseen faces include families, unaccompanied youth, youth transitioning out of the foster care system, offenders reentering society, domestic violence survivors, seniors, veterans, immigrants and refugees.
The Department of Education defines homelessness as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. On any given night, nearly 2,300 people are classified as homeless in Wyandotte County. Families with children make up 40 percent of that homeless population; of those families, 78 percent are single mothers and their children.
The primary causes of homelessness for families are unemployment or low wages and lack of affordable housing. So where do these families go? Only 14 per- cent are in shelters or transitional housing offered by social service agencies. Some are living in their cars, abandoned buildings or at campsites. Six percent are living week-to-week in motels. The majority of families, nearly 80 percent, are living “doubled-up” with another family, while they wait for a public or Section 8 housing opportunity to come available. It will be a long wait; the current backlog is 48 months.
While this report focused on Wyandotte County, the story that it tells applies to communities across the 21 counties of northeast Kansas — urban, suburban and rural. The current crisis in the mortgage markets will mean that more and more families will be facing an uncertain future. In my next column you will meet some of these individuals and families and learn more about the resources available to families in crisis.