More and More Seek Out Shelters : Homelessness in America Becoming a Family Affair

November 23, 1986|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — John Rhea doesn't know what he will do next. Maybe he will have to collect aluminum cans again or sell his blood one more time to help support his family.

Better that than trying to sell recreational vehicles in cash-poor Houston. Working on commissions, he didn't bring home a nickel for two months. The savings dried up, and collecting cans and selling blood wasn't enough. Then the eviction notice came. The Rheas, a family of five, lost their $595-a-month apartment. They were on the street. They were not alone.

The stereotype of the homeless goes something like this: white, male, over 35, alcoholic or mentally deranged, living on the streets by choice, picking through garbage cans for sustenance, panhandling for enough money to buy a bottle of cheap wine.

But it is families like the Rheas--many of them used to a better life and only newly poor--that are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. From Boston to Miami to Chicago to Phoenix to Seattle, their numbers, though virtually impossible to estimate accurately, have increased dramatically. As cold wintry weather arrives early this year across the nation, more and more of them are applying to shelters for help.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group, estimates that families now make up 40% of the nation's homeless, and coalition member Cindy Bogner says that, if the coalition's national estimate of 2 million to 3 million homeless is used, 500,000 to 800,000 of them are homeless children.

The Rheas' home these days is Houston's Salvation Army family center, with its gleaming linoleum floors and its antiseptic institutional aura. John, his wife, Janet, and the children--Victor, Christopher and Patricia--have a roof over their heads and three meals a day. The kids are still in school. Janet Rhea's paycheck from Popeye's Chicken means that some steady money is still coming in. But in an unforgiving world where worth is measured in bank statements, the Rheas are a family in trouble.

Nevertheless, they are trying to save, trying to find another apartment, trying to get back on their feet. The furniture is in storage. They've still got the family van, purchased from Janet's aunt, but they haven't made the $200 monthly payment since July.

Mired in Depressing Limbo

John wears a tan suit with his cowboy boots, a burgundy tie to complement his pink button-down shirt. He talks of a better time, of finding a job to match his qualifications, of getting another apartment, of pulling the furniture out of storage. But the truth is that the Rheas are mired in a depressing limbo where they cannot provide for themselves.

John blames himself. Maybe he should have taken just any job. Janet's sister, who persuaded them to come to Houston a year ago, has already returned to Chicago. Maybe if John had been willing to do manual labor back in Chicago, that would have pulled them through until he found a job that befits a man with a college degree, a Vietnam service record and a high regard for his own worth.

"This has never happened before," said Janet, sitting in the courtyard of the family center on a balmy November evening. "I've always been able to keep my head above water. It's brought me down quite a bit. I'm really depressed."

Housing Harder to Find

As more and more families--a major segment of them deserted or battered women with children--find themselves homeless, officials say, the search for a place to live grows steadily more difficult. Affordable housing in many major cities is rapidly diminishing to make way for downtown revitalization efforts.

Help from the federal government--minuscule when compared to the scope of the problem, most housing authorities say--has been shrinking during the Reagan Administration.

The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that homeless families are increasing by 25% a year. The result is that, from the depressed oil patch to the booming Northeast, homelessness has become a common tragedy for families of all stripes.

In Houston, the Star of Hope Mission opened a family shelter last January with 100 beds. In two days, 187 people--men, women and children--were crowded into the renovated warehouse. Now, even though temperatures in Houston rarely dip below 50 degrees, more than 200 stay each night. Plans are in the works to more than double the 25,000-square-foot capacity of the center.

'Could Not Leave'

"The issue was forced upon us because women, children and whole families were coming to us to eat and would not or could not leave," said Dr. Jerry Collins, the family center director. "It was sad. It was terrible. There was no place else for them to go."

This, in a city that has some of the lowest apartment rents in the country, where many homeless take advantage of the first month's free rent offered by desperate landlords, then take a powder.

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