Congress gave the homeless poor a Christmas gift this year. Ten days before the Nativity -- an event that occurred in an emergency shelter -- the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development invited in from the freezing weather six street people to describe their destitution.
The first congressional hearing on homelessness since the Depression in 1932 provided a major shock for many in the packed hearing room. The six witnesses didn't look, sound, act or smell poor. They were not the unsalvageable wretches of skid row. They were not winos, nor bag ladies, nor grate dwellers, nor the babbling insane, nor in any of the other categories of invisibility that let us look past the faces of the poor and see types, not people.
Instead, George Andrews, Frank Detorie, Victoria Mason, Pearline Pegues, Clarence West and Joyce Wilkins were clean, well-spoken, orderly citizens. They were physically healthy and mentally stable. That was the first shock. They were like us.
The second shock was that, until recently, they were us.
George Andrews is 26, with a bachelor's degree in physics from Georgia Southern College. For nearly three years, he has been looking for work in the field of physics. He came to Washington 18 days ago after four months of fruitless job hunting in Chicago. He has lived in his car, but his home now is the Central Union Mission. "It's a myth that those on the streets don't want to work," Andrews told the subcommittee.
Joyce Wilkins, 33, has held jobs as a file clerk, receptionist and bookkeeper. "This is the first time I've been homeless." For six weeks, she has lived at the Mt. Carmel Shelter for Homeless Women. "All I want to do is try to work and get back on my feet, get an apartment . . . I never thought I'd be in this situation." Wilkins began weeping.
Clarence West, 56, drove a truck until last March. "I had a home before that. My family is completely separated from me because of our financial difficulties." West lives in a garage. He is a volunteer worker at a soup kitchen.
Pearline Pegues worked until July in a West Virginia factory. It closed. She began looking for work immediately. She has five children and cannot get an apartment because her family is too large. Pegues received sustained applause when she told the subcommittee, "I might be homeless, but I don't consider myself poor. I consider the leaders of this country as poor."
Frank Detorie, 54, worked as a sales manager at a large car dealership. He became an electronics worker but was recently laid off. He found his way to the Gospel Mission. "Thank God it was there," he said. Now on the staff at the mission, he describes those he serves: "The people on the streets don't want to be there."
Victoria Mason, 23, says that "I've been living from shelter to shelter. I look in the paper for jobs." With her three children, she lives in a shelter for homeless families.
As the six told their individual stories, the reality emerged that homelessness in America is no longer a crisis. It is a condition. Crisis is a weak word. It suggests that in time the urgency will pass. But in all parts of the country citizens who once thought of themselves as cushioned against destitution are now totally dependent on shelters, soup kitchens and food banks for survival. The numbers are unprecedented, with 2.2 million people estimated to be without homes. That figure might be debated by those who like their statistics tidy. But where is the mayor in America, or the director of an emergency shelter, who reports fewer pleas for help this year than last year?
For the six witnesses, the fall to the bottom from middle-class security has been too quick and too brutal for any analysis of the causes. Others at the hearing provided that. Much of the homelessness today, said Robert Hayes, a lawyer with the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York group, is the result "of a housing market which no longer produces available and affordable housing for poor people."
With few shelters, high death rates have been predicted this winter for those living in the homes of the homeless: alleys, tents, cars, doorways, parks and tunnels. None of the six witnesses seemed in danger of death. But they would be the last ones to deny its possibility. Only one Christmas ago, they never imagined they were but a year away from the streets.