Last month, the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that homelessness, as measured by demand for emergency shelter, rose 50% last year in Los Angeles, the biggest increase in the country.
Other cities also reported sharp increases. Several, including Los Angeles, noted that the number of homeless families climbed rapidly in 1986.
But those who collect the statistics acknowledge that their counts are far from precise. They are trying to measure a population that is poor, transient and sometimes unable to deal with the agencies that would number and assist them, they say.
In Los Angeles, the most frequently cited number for the homeless is about 30,000. Nationwide, much disputed estimates range from 300,000 to 3 million.
No matter what the figures, there is growing sentiment that homelessness has ballooned beyond tolerance. "Whether it's 25,000, or 30,000, or 50,000, we've got an issue," said Susan Flores, who helped compile the Los Angeles portion of the mayors' report.
In fact, the homeless issue has created an ad hoc network of private shelters, assistance centers and other efforts supplementing the traditional work of missions and public agencies. During this month's cold wave, for instance, several churches offered shelter to the homeless and pledged ongoing efforts in their behalf.
These enterprises--ranging from a remodeled house in Van Nuys that provides showers, food and clothing, to a van stuffed with doughnuts and bagels whose owner makes the rounds of homeless encampments--are nearly all overtaxed. Operators generally say that they must turn away people every day, selecting only those they will be able to help the most.
"Poverty now means you have no place to go, that you're going to be without housing," said Harriott Resendez, director of the Women's Care Cottage in Van Nuys. "The new non-person is homeless. It brings on emotional changes about one's sense of self, one's sense of competency. It's like jumping into a black hole." THE GROWING HOMELESS POPULATION Percentages below reflect requests to agencies for the homeless. There are no reliable estimates for actual numbers of homeless persons; in Los Angeles, "about 30,000" is most frequently cited. Nationwide, much disputed estimates range from 300,000 to 3 million.
Percentage Increase in Percentage Increase Demand for Emergency in Demand for Shelter by Families City Emergency Shelter With Children Chicago 8 8 Cleveland 8 13 Denver 20 15 Detroit NA* 40 Kansas City 0 34 Los Angeles 50 30 Louisville NA* 46 Minneapolis 30 0 New Orleans 25 25 New York City 24 20 Norfolk 10 20 Philadelphia 25 28 Phoenix 25 24 Portland 10 10 Salt Lake City 20 29 San Antonio 7 5 San Francisco 15 20 Seattle 25 30 Trenton 15 20
*NA - Not Available Source: The United States Conference of Mayors