The new homeless

November 30, 1990

A Maryland advocacy group for the homeless reports an alarming rise in the number of families being turned away from shelters around the state for lack of room. The most serious finding of the survey, conducted by Action for the Homeless last year, is that families now make up almost half of all homeless people in the state, and that nearly a third of the people living in shelters are children.

Every night some 5,000 people are homeless in Maryland. This year shelters will be forced to turn away 50,000 people, all told -- an increase of 20 percent over last year. The reasons for the crisis of homelessness aren't hard to find: The current economic downturn has engulfed the "working poor" -- thousands upon thousands of Americans who hold regular jobs and struggle to embrace the traditional middle-class values, but find themselves sinking despite their best efforts. The number of Americans who worked but failed to earn enough to escape poverty increased by 2 million in the last decade. Today, almost 16 million employed people fall below the government poverty line, and 4 million of them have full-time jobs. In 1988 almost 32 million Americans, more than one in eight, had earnings below the poverty line.

Thus after eight years of boom and plenty for the rich and the upper-middle class, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever, and children are now the largest, fastest-growing sector of the poverty population. Yet Maryland officials insist the state can afford to contribute only a pittance for the most basic needs of the poor: the state doesn't contribute one penny to the Women, Infants and Children's feeding program and last year it chipped in just $4.5 million to shelters, less than one-quarter of all the money contributed annually to Maryland's homeless problem.

If the future of a society can be judged by the way it treats its children, then what can be said of Maryland which, in the name of "fiscal responsibility," is in effect turning thousands of its own children out onto the streets?

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