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The Homeless Nation: A 24-Hour Chronicle

From Maine to Seattle with stops in between, 500,000 to 700,000 street people just get by.

February 27, 2005|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

The family sleeps in a single room, its walls bare and windowless, its cracked concrete floor crowded with plastic storage bins and three mattresses: one for dad, one for mom and daughter, one for the three young sons.

Fluorescent lights will flicker on at 6 a.m. to start their new day.

This room in an old red-brick factory-turned-shelter in Chicago is home to the Torres family. They consider themselves lucky to be here. They have a warm place to stay, three meals a day -- and each other.

The family is among an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people who, on any given night in America, lack a real home.

According to some estimates, the homeless population has doubled in the last 20 years. But some experts say more people now fall into that category simply because billions of dollars have been spent to build shelters.

Americans are troubled by this issue: An Associated Press poll taken Feb. 11-13 found 53% consider homelessness a very serious problem. The survey, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs among 1,001 adults, had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

For a snapshot of the nation's homeless, Associated Press reporters and photographers spent 24 hours earlier this month meeting with people who live on the streets and in shelters, following them to jobs or court appearances, talking with those who try to help them.

These are their stories:

After Midnight: Portland, Maine

Scotty Partridge is pacing outside a blue tent pitched among the barren spruce trees on the outskirts of Portland.

"Hobo Jungle" has been his home for nearly a year. Partridge's clothes are frayed, his face windburned and gaunt.

On this 35-degree night, most of Portland's homeless are in a shelter, but Partridge prefers a tent furnished with plywood, a radio, a television and a discarded propane heater.

Partridge, 36, once had a good job at a printing company in Chicago, a nice apartment, a woman he was going to marry. But when the relationship soured, he returned to Maine and got hooked on heroin.

On methadone for five years, Partridge survives day to day.

"Every day is so hard ... ," he says. "You think about, OK, how am I going to eat today and how are my boots going to unthaw.... Being homeless is a full-time job."

Almost Dawn: New York City

John Mitchell rises for work with a siren blaring inside a homeless shelter in Harlem -- a signal for residents to line up for twice-a-week drug tests.

A former crack addict, Mitchell, 47, says he was in and out of prison and homeless for more than 20 years, robbing people for drug money, digging through trash cans for food.

"I came to the conclusion this time around I learned what that word surrender means," Mitchell says.

Seven months ago, he became sober and entered the city's "Ready, Willing & Able" program that provides shelter (10 men to a room), hot meals and a job cleaning the streets that pays up to $7 an hour.

He's also studying at night to be a nurse's aide.

"I gotta keep saying, 'This is not going to last forever, there's a bigger picture,' " he says. "It's like riding a bike ... right now I'm using training wheels. Before I know it, I'll be popping a wheelie."

8:30 a.m.: Chicago

A 10-degree wind chill whips through the North Side streets as 6-year-old Angelina Torres, in her striped wool hat, and her twin, Angel, in his Spiderman gloves, head to kindergarten.

Their mom, Eileen Rivera, leads the way. Her two older sons, Omar, 9, and JJ, 10, have already left for another school -- a bus picked them up at 8 a.m. at the Sylvia Center, the shelter where the family has lived for eight months.

As Rivera walks briskly, she notes her twins have stayed in shelters about half their lives. "They just blend right in." She pauses, then adds: "It's sad."

Her husband, Jesus Torres, 43, recently found work driving a forklift, earning $7 an hour. He saves a large part of his earnings. The family is on waiting lists for public and subsidized housing.

Rivera, who has a stress-related illness that has left her bald, tells her children this is just a steppingstone. "Guys," she says, "

Rivera knows what that will be: "Your own toilet. Your own tissues. Your own bath. Your own window. Things that are yours. Just yours."

9 a.m.: Miami

Retha Ann Cain shuffles her shackled feet into a Miami courtroom.

Cain, 19, was homeless before she was jailed for prostitution. When her latest 180-day sentence is up in March, she will be homeless again.

Cain has been on and off the streets, in and out of foster care since she was 14. She ran away from Ohio at 17 with a boyfriend and moved to Miami. The two live in a tent.

Cain is in court to face two counts of obstructing traffic to pick up tricks. She has agreed to plead guilty in exchange for credit for time served.

The judge orders Cain to participate in an AIDS education course -- Cain says she is HIV-negative -- but the young woman isn't interested in a program offering housing and job training.

The judge offers her some free bus tokens.

"Thank you, thank you," Cain says.

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