Homelessness In The Middle Class: Stable Families Reduced To Poverty

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Three and a half years ago, Kathleen Cooke was breathing easy. Having left her well-paying job for a new career as a teacher, she spent a blissful summer with her kids, sipping lemonade and baking cookies.But within months, the life she had built evaporated. When she failed to secure a new job, she entered a steady downward spiral that eventually led her to a homeless shelter.

Homelessness, once an abstract idea, had become real.

After the worst economic downturn since the Depression, formerly middle-class people like Cooke have found themselves reduced to poverty. With jobs scarce, and with government safety nets shrinking, one misfortune — a layoff, an injury, a mortgage default – can transform a persons life beyond recognition. No longer a condition reserved for the margins of society, for drug addicts and the mentally ill, homelessness has infiltrated the heart of America.

As foreclosure and unemployment rates have swelled to epidemic proportions in the past two years, the ranks of the American homeless have grown: the number of homeless families rose 4 percent in 2009, and then 9 percent last year, a pair of new reports show. In effect, even more Americans were homeless than those numbers suggest, stranded in the awkward process of staying with friends and relatives, for lack of a home of their own. Instances of families “doubling up” between 2008 and 2010 rose nearly 12 percent.

“People who I would have gone to as donors of ours I now talk to as clients,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, a shelter organization here in Santa Ana. “Its in their consciousness.”

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