The Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued its first-ever report to Congress on the scope of the homeless population in the United States. The results reveal that as of two winters ago, when a one-night count was taken in 3,800 cities, about three quarters of a million Americans are living on the streets. That's more than four times the estimate projected in the year 2000 census. And the nation's homelessness problem has a very human face.
You'll find August Mallory on the streets of Washington, hawking a newspaper: Street Sense, ladies and gentlemen, Street Sense.' How 'bout it, sir? Copy of Street Sense today?"
Mr. Mallory is one of the vendors who pays thirty cents a copy for the newspaper by, for, and about the homeless of Washington. Whenever he can coax someone into stopping to listen -- and that's not often, as most people hurry past him -- he has good luck selling the paper for the cover price of a dollar. He keeps the seventy-cent profit.
Good afternoon, sir. How are you? This is Street Sense, our new street paper that just came out."
The already raw day turns dark on McPherson Square, a stone's throw from the White House. The skies open, and Mr. Mallory -- who was homeless for several months after losing his job -- scurries under a canopy to escape the deluge. Not every homeless person is a drug addict or a mental case," he says. "I've found a lot of homeless people to be very heartful and very giving people."
Street Sense contains first-person stories and poems by the homeless, simple recipes, and a list of shelters and food banks. It's published by volunteers at the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Street Sense's co-editor, Ted Henson, was a longtime volunteer at a homeless shelter in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Mr. Henson says the paper will not sugar-coat the realities of life on the street, or duck the perceptions that prompt passersby to snarl, "Hey, buddy, get . . . a . . . job!"
A large majority of the homeless population is a working population," Mr. Henson notes. "It's not the fact that they're lazy. It's not the fact that they're on drugs, or they're drunk, or they're just bums. These people are formerly government officials, college graduates, veterans. People just have a fall. Poverty's a cycle. To get a job you need a place to stay. To get a place to stay, you need a job. You need an address. And it's really hard for people to find a way to get back on their feet."
Street Sense's other co-editor, twenty-six-year-old Laura Thompson, takes time to tutor homeless kids. There's a lot of families that are homeless," she says. "That's the fastest-growing population of homelessness. People can't afford a place to live. These people that are on the streets or in shelters are real people. And we're trying to humanize the homeless and show their struggles.
Forty-seven-year-old George Siletti has lived on the street for the better part of his adult life. He's spoken to school and civic groups about his life -- the chronic depression and sense of worthlessness, the drinking that he says stopped thirteen years ago. I've been sleeping on the heating grates, under business awnings," he says. "And then I was under a bridge for awhile, putting cardboard down. It's difficult, you know, 'cause you don't know where you're going to sleep the next night. You have to numb yourself to the chill that goes through your bones. And I don't mean numbing it with alcohol and drugs."
The homeless can be scary, he admits. "But we're not all bad people. We have goals in life. We cry, we laugh, just like everybody else. How 'bout touching a human being's life? Talk to me. Say 'good morning' in the morning. Touch my life."
In Street Sense, poet Pierre Valdez Lewis writes about a homeless friend:
"As you pass him on your way to work," he writes . . .
"believe me, he knows that you pretended
as you went upon your merry way
that you didn't see his hand extended."