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WORLD VIEW : Gimme Shelter: The Plight of the Homeless in Lands of Plenty : In advanced nations, the 'new poverty' sends more and more people into the street.

October 04, 1994|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Willie and Xenia Miles have lived across from the White House for six months now. When drug addicts overran the abandoned house they had squatted in, the fast-food cook and his pregnant wife took up residence under a flowering magnolia in historic Lafayette Park.

"The shelters would have split us up. Besides, stealing in most of them is something terrible," Willie Miles said as they shared a cola crackers for breakfast. Sleeping on coarse gray blankets, their belongings in plastic bags beside the tree, the Mileses said they feel less vulnerable in the open.

In the capital of the world's most powerful nation, pockets of homelessness are now pervasive. The Mileses are among about 50 people who sleep on the park's benches and under its maples, willows and magnolias, according to the National Park Service. Hundreds more sleep around the Washington and Lincoln monuments, in the shadow of the Capitol and on the warming sidewalk grates outside the departments of Justice, Commerce and State.

Somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 people are homeless in Washington--up from about 400 two decades ago, community groups report. About a third sleep in the open year-round.

But Washington is not unique. From Stockholm and Sydney to Tokyo and Toronto, the capitals and commercial centers of virtually every wealthy, industrialized country have experienced an unprecedented surge in homelessness since the late 1980s.

Along with hunger, homelessness is now one of the two main social problems of the West, a trend all the more damning because the resources are available to prevent it, economists contend.

Instead, many homeless in the wealthy nations of Europe, North America, Japan and Australia live as roughly as their Third World counterparts. And in the industrialized states of Eastern Europe, the new capitalism has put hundreds of thousands on the streets.

"The most extreme manifestation of the marginality and social exclusion in the midst of affluence and economic growth is the phenomenon of homelessness, which is found to exist to differing degrees in all developed countries and is growing at worrying rates," warns an upcoming report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, whose members are 24 of the world's wealthiest nations.

Once limited to a tiny fringe of society, the homeless have reached staggering numbers at the end of the 20th Century.

Among the European Union's 12 member-states, at least 2.5 million people are homeless, and the total probably exceeds 5 million, reports the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless.

In the United States, the number of "absolute homeless" is conservatively estimated at 600,000 at any given time, with as many as 7 million homeless over any five-year period, reports Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.

The homeless are now visible throughout the developed world--around the heating vents of shopping malls in chilly Canada, in the subterranean world of the Paris Metro, under Budapest's bridges and in Warsaw's parks, in cardboard boxes close by the glass-and-concrete high-rises of Tokyo's financial center, and near abandoned factories in Sydney and Melbourne.

The story is not, however, just in the growing numbers and haunting conditions. As Willie and Xenia Miles indicate, the profile of the homeless is rapidly changing.

Once largely alcoholics, drug addicts or mentally impaired, the legions of the homeless are increasingly women and children, even whole families. Up to a third have jobs but cannot afford shelter, experts say. And the average age is declining. In Europe, as many as 70% of the homeless are younger than 20. In Canada, where homelessness has doubled in 10 years, 25% of the quarter of a million homeless are children, the National Anti-Poverty Organization in Ottawa claims.

"In the past, there was a pool of itinerant cheap labor that was variously called hobos, drifters or vagrants. It was perceived to remain homeless by choice," the OECD report says. "The current homeless, which do not fit this stereotype, are heterogeneous, consisting of a number of groups who, unable to operate at the margins of the economic, social and residential life of the city, become victims of 'the new poverty.' "

Willie Miles, who recently got a job at a fried chicken restaurant, is a case in point. Paid minimum wage, he says it will be a long time before he can afford the first and last month's rent, plus security deposit, for rental housing. Until they have enough, the Mileses say, they'll stay in Lafayette Park.

The "new poverty" has multiple causes.

"The current crisis is due to policies that ignored or misdiagnosed changes in housing affordability, the adverse impact of economic shifts around the world, increased drug use and the rising cost of health care," said Marsha Martin, executive director of Washington's Interagency Council on the Homeless.

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