Short-Lived Cheer for Homeless

The region’s homeless men and women may find it a bit easier to find a warm bed and a hot meal today. The unusually cold temperatures have prompted public officials to open additional shelters. The Christmas spirit has motivated volunteers to pass out turkey dinners. But what about next week or next year?

The number of homeless people who are forced to seek shelter or food from government or charities has risen in urban America by 20% over the last five years, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That number is expected to grow as the current economic downturn forces even more Americans out into the cold.

Joblessness and other employment troubles are the primary reasons for hunger and homelessness, according to local officials who were surveyed in 30 cities. They also cited the lack of affordable housing, low benefits and limitations in assistance programs. Drugs, alcohol abuse, mental illness and AIDS also take huge social tolls and account for one-third of the urban homeless.

The needs are clearly growing, but services are not keeping pace. Private charities are facing declining revenues motivated in part by hard times in more homes, and by hardened feelings on the part of a growing number of Americans who are no longer willing to help people who appear to be permanently helpless.


Many desperately poor people who request help are turned away empty-handed. An average of 14% do without, according to the survey. During the recent cold spell, homeless men were turned away from crowded public shelters in Orange County.

Public shelters typically open when the thermometer hits 40 degrees, but in San Diego a lower threshold of 35 degrees is necessary to open municipal facilities to homeless people. In Los Angeles, county shelters are also triggered by cold weather, but the city has a more responsive strategy. Eight city shelters opened last week and will stay open regardless of the weather for 60 days. The cost, $1.3 million, is covered with federal, state and local funds despite budget constraints.

Homeless Americans may enjoy a brief respite today, but they need help every day.