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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)

Madden stays day-to-day at the half-finished home of friend Frankie Johnson in a dilapidated suburb of Pontiac. Layers of drywall are stacked on the floor next to giant bales of insulation. There are holes in the wall, and the one bathroom that works leaks. More pressingly, the three-bedroom house is also occupied by Johnson and seven children.

"It's tight," Madden said stoically, sitting on the bare bed she shares with her son. "But at least it's not winter anymore. When we moved in, in February, we didn't have a bed. For a week, there was no heating. The gas people hadn't turned up. Even with jackets, coats and two pairs of socks on, the cold was indescribable."

In a city with unemployment at almost 20 percent, it is perhaps unsurprising that Madden is still without work, 20 months after being laid off from a laboratory testing firm where she worked as a biller. From earning a middle-class wage, she now survives on $118 a week in child support.

"Whenever I see a job come up I apply, but I don't get replies," she said. "I go to the job center three or four times a week." Madden also enrolled in a No Worker Left Behind program, under which she hopes to complete her bachelor's degree in criminal justice. "But a degree is no good if you can't get a job," she said.

And with no job, "there's no mortgage, no savings -- definitely no house."

In Royal Oak, Mich., Kevin Roach is a front-line witness to this paradigm shift. "We've seen a dramatic increase in women and children seeking help," said Roach, executive director of South Oakland Shelter, which provides 30 beds to homeless people in Oakland County. In October, he turned away 770 people, more than half of them from families. "We turned down 320 children. That's a number that's burned in my head."

Even a year ago, Roach said, he would have described a "prototypical" homeless person as middle-aged, male, with mental-health or drug issues. "But in the last months, we've had a teacher and a banker in our program," he said. "A third of our clients once had a steady income." Two months ago, he added, the number of clients with bachelor's degrees overtook those with mental-health problems.

Roach's clients are sheltered by a rotating list of churches and community groups that take them in for a week each. Last week it was the turn of First Baptist Church of Detroit. Over a plate of lasagna cooked by church volunteers, a mother of two, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told a familiar story. "I moved into my mother's after I was evicted," she said. "But we argued. I think she expected Molly the Maid service. Sometimes you want someone else to load the dishwasher, you know?"

That night, the church's volunteers give the sheltered women makeovers, using make-up scrounged from local stores. "It's amazing how much our guests have changed," said Myrtice Batty, a college professor who has been involved in the church's shelter program for 15 years. "When I first started, there were many more men. Now families are about 50 percent."

The new wave of HUD funding will benefit groups such as South Oakland Shelter, which has just secured a $300,000 grant to provide rental and utility assistance to struggling families. Roach hopes that a concerted outreach effort will reach women like Veronica, 47, a former Ford worker who lives with her 11-year-old son in a tiny motel room near Royal Oak. She declined to give her full name in an interview.

"I remember in June 2008, Ford called a meeting for me and 20 other employees," she explained. "They got us all up and said, 'This is your last day.' I was like 'Whoa.' I knew straight away I couldn't cover $650 a month. We left quietly as we didn't want to be evicted -- you're already embarrassed enough."

After moving between friends and family five times in less than a year, and applying unsuccessfully for 65 jobs, Veronica moved into a $110-a-week motel; her son sleeps on an air mattress at the foot of her bed. "There are so many moments where I don't feel like getting up and putting on clothes, but you do, for him," she said, nodding at John, who wants to be a chemist when he grows up. "And he supports me, too. Sometimes he tells me, 'Don't doubt, believe.' We support each other."

There are thousands of children like John in Oakland County. "This year, the number of students we served was up by a third," said Susan Benson, director of the Oakland Schools Homeless Student Education Program, which advocates for homeless children. Benson estimates the number of homeless students in the county at 4,000 to 10,000. "The average age of a homeless person in Oakland County is just under 9," she said. "Most are doubled up, living with friends, hours away from their schools."

Back on North Johnson Road in Pontiac, Madden finds it difficult to adjust. She used the last of her unemployment benefit to buy a $2,000 car in January -- allowing her to take Jovon to baseball practice and herself to the job center. The car uses up $60 a week in gas, but still providing activities for her son is a priority.

"Entertainment doesn't happen too often," she said. "In 2007, I couldn't buy Jovon Christmas presents. Sometimes I take him to his grandma's because I find it hard to feed him. I want to keep him here, but it's more stable there. Sometimes he screams, 'Don't leave!' "

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