2nd-generation homeless show depth of problem

February 18, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- A new wave of the homeless is showing up in the nation's shelters as chronic homelessness, once an anomaly in America, extends its grip over a second generation.

In the past few months, shelter operators in areas as diverse as the South Bronx, St. Louis and Savannah, Ga., have begun to track the emerging trend, which has alarmed social service providers already crushed by the demands of an ever-growing, ever-needy population.

For the first time since the United States began the wholesale sheltering of the homeless nearly a decade ago, social service agencies are taking note of this new twist to the homeless family: people, such as 20-year-old Wanda Kemp, who spent time in shelters as children and who now are back as adults, this time with families of their own.

"This was the only way for us to start over," said the well-spoken Ms. Kemp, who lives in a family shelter in a battered section of Brooklyn with her 2-year-old son, Kennith, and 3-month-old Keyaira. Ms. Kemp has lived with relatives, friends and in shelters since her grandmother died four years ago. "There was no place else to go," she said.

"You know, when we open the door here and Kennith yells, 'We're home!' I think to myself, 'No, baby, we're not home yet,' " said Ms. Kemp as she readjusted a sleeping Keyaira on her shoulder. "Kennith has been bounced around from place to place since he was born. I tell you, once I get my own apartment, I'll never mess up. All I'll have to remember are the times we've spent here. I'm in here for one reason only, and that's to get out."

Though the numbers of the homeless have not been documented, some shelter providers on the front lines of the national crisis believe the emerging category Ms. Kemp represents to be significant, and growing.

"These people have become prisoners of the shelter system," said Thomas Kenyon, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington. "We're creating a whole class of homeless people."

"While the numbers may not be huge, it's something we all should become aware of because it's going to grow -- it has to grow. In many cities, there's no affordable, permanent housing to move into. These people are being transitioned -- to no place. It's all so horribly predictable."

Social scientists say the new grouping raises serious questions, most notably: Are shelters, where families live months at a time, creating a dependency among residents, who in increasing numbers have never had a place of their own? Even more to the point: How do you break the poverty-driven cycle?

"The notion that homelessness is reaching into a second generation is very scary," said Kenneth M. Murphy, deputy commissioner of Crisis Intervention Services for New York City, which will provide emergency housing for an estimated 13,000 families this year. "We're talking about a group of people that's coming from the same pool, that's what's frightening. And unless we start building housing for these folks, nothing is going to change."

In Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, shelter providers are picking up bits and pieces of the trend. Little, however, has been documented; most evidence is anecdotal.

"We're hearing stories of children in shelters who have said, 'Yeah, my mama was in here when she was a kid,' and that's something we haven't seen before," said Gordon Johnson, director of Hull House Association, a community service organization in Chicago.

"Children are growing up in shelters as parents begin to treat these places as a regular part of life. They are starting to look at shelters as the end of the road instead of the beginning."

At Antioch Shelter in Baltimore, Director Joyce Galloway recalled a 16-year-old girl who received refuge with her mother a couple of years ago. The girl, now 18 and pregnant, has a 1-year-old. Recently, she and her child were back in the shelter.

"The same kinds of problems are still out there," said Ms. Galloway. "The girl who was victimized as a child is an adult now. She knows the system and she's back, this time with her own child."

In New York, which operates the nation's largest family shelter system, a data analyst picked up the trend five months ago, when he noticed the same names popping up in a computer analysis of shelter clients.

"We've been talking about this for over a year, but no one wants to listen," said Ralph Da Costa Nunez, president of Homes for the Homeless, a non-profit agency in New York that serves homeless families. "You've got children 'aging out,' and they've got no place to go. For many, they're back in the shelter system because it's what they've known. They are in droves entering the shelter system, and many have their own children. Look out, because this is just the beginning."

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