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Charities, Shelters See Wave of Homeless Families

Lawanda Madden jokes with nieces Armani and Elija Madden in a room she sleeps in, in Pontiac, Mich. She is staying at a friend's half-finished home.
Lawanda Madden jokes with nieces Armani and Elija Madden in a room she sleeps in, in Pontiac, Mich. She is staying at a friend's half-finished home. (By Madalyn Ruggiero For The Washington Post)

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By Alexi Mostrous
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

PONTIAC, Mich. -- The lowest point in Lawanda Madden's life came in February, when she woke up on the floor of her friend's run-down house in this city battered by recession. She was shivering with cold. She remembers turning to her 8-year-old son, Jovon, and thinking: "How did this happen to us? How did we become homeless?"

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Only 15 months before, Madden, 39, had a $35,000-a-year job, a two-bedroom apartment and a car. She was far from rich, but she could treat Jovon to the movies. She occasionally visited her sister in Chicago and bowled in a local league. She dreamed of going to law school. Then she was laid off and lost everything.

"I've had a job since I was 19," she recalled. "I never imagined I would be without a home. You think it's going to get better -- that it's just temporary -- and then six months goes by, and you wonder, 'Wait a minute -- this might be it.' "

With neat hair and clean clothes, a college education and stable job history, Madden represents the new face of American homelessness.

Across the country, community housing networks, charities and emergency shelters are seeing a flood of people like her -- mothers driven out of their homes by the economic collapse. Even as the economy shows signs of improving, the number of homeless families keeps going up. In more and more cases, these people have never been homeless before.

More than half a million family members used an emergency shelter or transitional housing between Oct. 1, 2007, and Oct. 1, 2008, the latest figures available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number of homeless families rose 9 percent, and in rural and suburban areas by 56 percent. Women make up 81 percent of adults in homeless families, and tend to be younger than 30 with children younger than 5.

In some areas of the country, family homelessness has almost tripled since 2007, new figures obtained by The Washington Post show. Formerly prosperous areas such as Bergen County, N.J., and Hillsboro, Ore., have been particularly affected, with increases of 161 percent and 194 percent, respectively. Oakland County, where Madden lives, has experienced a 111 percent jump in the number of families seeking shelter or emergency housing since 2007.

"And it's going to get worse," said Marc Craig, president of the Community Housing Network in Oakland County. "Thousands of people here will lose their unemployment benefit in the next few months. Many of them will become homeless."

The Obama administration announced last month a $1.5 billion package focused on tackling first-time and family homelessness. The funding, which lasts for three years, represents a change from President George W. Bush's approach, which limited most HUD funding to the chronically homeless with substance-abuse or mental-health problems.

"There's been a funding gap for a long time," Craig said. "It's good there's been a change in approach, but the new money is just a Band-Aid. It's got to continue."

The shift is also evidenced in the District, where the number of homeless families is listed as 703, a 20 percent increase over last year. But these figures -- like the HUD statistics -- heavily underestimate the number of homeless families, experts say, as they do not count those who cram themselves and their children into friends' houses, "couch surf," or sleep four to a bed in cheap motel rooms built for single occupancy.

"Families, especially, are likely to explore every option before they stay in a shelter," said Jill Shoemaker, who collects homelessness data for the Community Housing Network in Oakland County. "We just have no way of counting them at the moment."


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