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Middle Class Not Immune to Spread of Homelessness

Associated Press

Donald Floyd finds wilted vegetables inside a supermarket dumpster in Contra Costa County and heads toward a grove of trees behind the wall of a BMW dealership.

In the shadow of $40,000 car deals, Floyd cooks the vegetables for about a dozen other homeless people, including pregnant women and Vietnam veterans who live among the brush.

Shattering the standard stereotype of the homeless, middle-class citizens have become caught up in the social plague, and they sometimes take refuge in the more affluent communities of the Bay Area--places closer to their former homes.

“Our friends are homeless, our children,” said Mary Lou Laubscher, director of the Cambridge Community Center in Concord. “It’s hitting the middle class that thought this would never happen to them.”

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Affordable Housing

The recent homeless are not just the mentally ill or alcoholics living in the doorways of urban streets. A shortage of affordable housing has affected nearly every vulnerable group in most regions, but those hardest hit are single mothers and working middle-class families, experts said.

Seventy-six percent of the homeless in Alameda County are young single mothers and their children, forced from their homes by rising rents, according to a new homeless report from the county.

Families account for two-thirds of the homeless people in San Mateo County, with some of those being former homeowners, according to Chris Sutherland-Redder, executive director of the Shelter Network of San Mateo County.

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“With rare exception, most of the people we see here have never been homeless before and can’t believe it’s happening to them,” she told the San Francisco Examiner.

Had Jobs Last Year

About half of a group of 850 homeless people who participated in a loan program in Contra Costa County last year held jobs, Laubscher said.

San Francisco’s estimated 6,000 homeless people are no longer just single, chemically dependent or mentally ill men. They include families and alienated youths, seniors, disabled people, Vietnam veterans, people with AIDS and AIDS-related complex and battered women, according to a new draft report prepared by Public Advocates and the United Way of the Bay Area.

In affluent Marin County, families represent the fastest-growing group among homeless people. Many of the families are headed by working women with children. Some attempt to flee their economic nightmare by living on the road.

“They’re caught up in this transmigration of the homeless in America,” said Wayne Wechsler, executive director of the Marin Housing Center. “Tomorrow they’re in Santa Rosa and three days later they’re in Oregon and nothing has really changed for them.”

These people become homeless because of catastrophic illness, a lost job, divorce or sexual abuse. But more often, increased rents tip people with homes toward dislocation, experts said.

“With people’s mortgage payments and credit card bills, how many are more than a paycheck away from being homeless themselves?” asked Robert Tobin, executive director of the Central City Hospitality House in San Francisco. “And if that happened, who would they turn to and how would they deal with it?”

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Many of those without homes are college-educated, skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar workers. These people, too proud to seek assistance, become almost invisible, living in cars, behind food stores and shopping malls, in addition to shelters and homeless hotels.

One Palo Alto family of five lost their home after the only wage-earner, an artisan, was injured in an industrial accident. The family lived for six months in a Menlo Park shelter while the wage-earner retrained in the computer field, said Linda Prentice, coordinator of the Menlo Park Family Living Center.

A laid-off Concord man lived above a bowling alley until he fell and broke his arm. Another man slept in a sleeping bag at a dog kennel. A Danville couple, senior citizens, slept in their Volkswagen for two years without seeking help, Laubscher said.

“They have middle-class standards that say, ‘We take care of ourselves,’ ” Laubscher said. “And then when they can’t, it’s just really awful.”


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