ROOSEVELT, N.Y. (AP) – Homelessness in rural and suburban America is straining shelters this winter as the economy founders and joblessness hovers near double digits—a “perfect storm of foreclosures, unemployment and a shortage of affordable housing,” in one official’s eyes.
“We are seeing many families that never before sought government help,” said Greg Blass, commissioner of Social Services in Suffolk County on eastern Long Island.
“We see a spiral in food stamps, heating assistance applications; Medicaid is skyrocketing,” Blass added. “It is truly reaching a stage of being alarming.”
The federal government is again counting the nation’s homeless and, by many accounts, the suburban numbers continue to rise, especially for families, women, children, Latinos and men seeking help for the first time. Some have to be turned away.
“Yes, there has definitely been an increased number of turnaways this year,” said Jennifer Hill, executive director of the Alliance to End Homelessness in suburban Cook County, Illinois. “We’re seeing increases in shelter use along the lines of 30 percent or more.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual survey last year found homelessness remained steady at about 1.6 million people, but the percentage of rural or suburban homelessness rose from 23 percent to 32 percent. The 2009 HUD report, which reflected the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2008, also found the number of sheltered homeless families grew from about 473,000 to 517,000.
Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless on Long Island, led a recent group of about 40 volunteers to scour vacant lots and industrial parks for this year’s HUD survey; results are expected in several months.
“One of the things that we’ve noticed is a lot more unsheltered, mostly men who claim this is the first time they’ve been homeless, who indicate that it’s due to a loss of wages or loss of job, because of the economy,” Guarton said.