Who are the homeless? Well, it can be pretty easy, these days, to be fed up with the subject. Perhaps it also seems as though the problem cannot be escaped. Not only do you have to endure that long commute home, there's someone at the freeway entrance, begging for money. Perhaps you barely notice their faces. Perhaps you resent the intrusion. Perhaps you just don't need someone else making you feel guilty.
Panhandlers can seem to be everywhere: near the automated bank teller, outside the convenience store, stationed between the parking lot and your favorite restaurant. It's easy to look the other way and assume that the few coins you offer would surely go toward drugs or alcohol. It's easy to be disdainful. As one comedian put it: "They keep asking me for spare change. Why don't they find a spare job?"
We ought to know by now that the homeless are often hard cases that defy such simple rationalizations. According to a seminal work by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, about 20% of the homeless--nationwide--have been mental hospital patients at least once in their lives. As many as one-third suffer from schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis. One in five have attempted suicide, and nearly half have suffered from depression serious enough to require immediate clinical treatment.
At least 35% of the single homeless adults, according to the institute, have reported some inpatient treatment for chemical dependency, usually alcoholism. At least one-fourth of the homeless are families, most headed by single women.
About 70% of the people who are now homeless shared their most recent housing with someone else. Only 13% said they were formally evicted. About 5% left condemned buildings. Nearly one-fourth said they were thrown out or could not get along with those they lived with. More than 60% cited other reasons: drug addiction, a lost job, leaving town to look for work and finding none, leaving to enter a treatment program, jail or prison, or leaving or escaping a relationship with the person who had paid the mortgage or the rent.
Just 6% of the homeless held steady work. One-fourth of them had earned cash during the most recent month from working at odd jobs. The median monthly income for single adults was $64. For families with an average of three members, their median income was $300 a month. Half of that came from various forms of public assistance. About 25% of that money came from working.
These are national figures but the numbers still help put a face on the San Fernando Valley's homeless. A more personal look is even better. It is important to note that most of the Valley's homeless were born here, went to school here, and held down jobs and active lives. Recent stories by Times reporters Susan Byrnes, Jeannette Regalado, Eric Slater, Jeff Schnaufer and Kurt Pitzer tell us even more. They might even soften your heart on the matter.
Take Marlene Dallugge of Canoga Park, for example. On one of this homeless woman's recent treks on the street, in search of collectibles, she found a $25,000 check. So what if no one would have mistaken her for Henry Spitzer, president of Topco, Inc. (It was his check.) Who cares that the payment on the check was stopped on the day that it was lost, making it worthless. Dallugge, who has lived in her car since the Northridge quake, only wanted to return it to its rightful owner. She did.
For Steve Coughlin, another of the Valley's homeless and a regular at the Sherman Way off-ramp of the San Diego Freeway, the money he receives each day is the difference between another night on the street or the safer surroundings of a cheap Sepulveda Boulevard hotel.
Samantha Scott of North Hollywood gave up the best job that she had ever had, her home, her savings and her possessions in the effort to raise her two grandchildren after her daughter failed to provide for them. She was homeless until a shelter known as the Women's Care Cottage in Van Nuys helped her regain her stability, and her independence.
Such stories help counter the image of the homeless as irreparably damaged, indolent and dishonest. And a related story points up our short-sighted hypocrisy on the matter.
It was another community in Van Nuys that had long ago soured on the common sight of panhandlers and vagrants. So what happened when a proposal surfaced for a 150-bed shelter that would have removed some of those folks from the streets? It was so stridently opposed by residents that the idea was dropped.
At such times, its important to remember folks like Samantha Scott. Without the brief respite of shelter, she might still be a homeless grandmother, struggling to raise two children and facing long odds.