US & Canada

Economy changing the face of homelessness in US

Mary Goode and her husband, AJ greet each other with a kiss and dissolve into laughter. They are irrepressibly upbeat.

But their attitude belies their story - and their status as faces of the new, working homeless.

The two are not destitute, but they live in one room at the five-storey Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

The homeless shelter is a step up from their previous address - a white Chevy pick-up truck.

"We were working in Tennessee at this motel, and it got really slow there. And we lost our jobs," Mr Goode says.

They lived where they worked, so they lost their home, too.

Mrs Goode laughs: "It's a good truck. But we lived in it for four months because of the recession."

"Life can be very hard on you. If you don't have a steady base of income coming in, if you don't have any savings, you can go down real fast and stay there," she says.

Skid Row

Along with several more shelters, the mission sits just a few grubby blocks from gleaming skyscrapers and the city's elegant City Hall.

In the shadow of power and wealth, this is Skid Row, LA's square mile of despair.

The traditional image of homelessness is shocking and all too obvious - people wrapped in filthy layers, some pushing their lives around on supermarket trolleys, others simply crouching in corners, seeking shade from the unrelenting summer sun.

According to the city's Homeless Services Authority, the number of people homeless each night in the city of LA dropped from around 40,000 to 25,000 between the recession years of 2007 and 2009.

But a US government report found the number of homeless families rose 30% between those same years.

A homeless family standing outside of a shelter in Los Angeles, California
Some homeless families in Los Angeles, California have found shelter at local missions in the city

Countrywide, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates around 670,000 are homeless each night.

It says there is not yet enough data to quantify the effects of the recession.

But it points out that homelessness tends to be a delayed response to an economic downturn.

Reverend Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission, doesn't need data to identify a changing problem.

"We've had a tsunami of families come in - families who are experiencing homelessness for the first time. And it just seems like the wave never ends," he says.

We walk through a large room containing several rows of bunk beds.

Stand-alone fans keep the room cool. Air conditioning is too expensive to install.

The shelter sleeps around 1000 people each night, mostly single adults in these dorms.

The 'economic reality'

Now for the first time, the shelter is asking some to pay $7 (£4.50) a night.

In return, residents can stay in their beds during the day, a change from the current policy of vacating the beds until the evening.

The shelter also gives them a locker and saves $2 on their behalf, a scheme designed for empowerment as much as economics.

"People feel better about themselves when they pay their own way, and it affirms their dignity," Reverend Bales says.

Tents on a sidewalk in the Skid Row district in Los Angeles
Some of Los Angeles' homeless have erected tents on sidewalks around the city

He adds: "And really the economic reality has forced us into considering that. These are the toughest times in the history of Union Rescue Mission - 119 years. We are serving ten times the people that we were during the Great Depression, and LA is only three times bigger than it was during the Great Depression."

Donations on which the shelter depends are down, and some staff have been laid off.

Meanwhile, California's publicly-funded safety net is shrinking, a result of deep cuts in a state facing a $19bn (£15bn) budget shortfall.

Families in poverty

California's jobless are adding to the state's homelessness, with unemployment remaining stubbornly above 12% along with one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the US.

Among them is Jonathan Long.

By the door of his room at the Union Rescue Mission a hand-drawn sign reads "The Long Family".

Above it, a photograph of his wedding day - he and his bride wore red, as it was Valentine's Day.

Inside I met his four children and his wife, Veronica, pregnant with their fifth.

The room looked to measure around 15ft (4.5m) by 10ft (3m).

"It's better then being out there," Mr Long says.

There was a bunk bed against one wall and a single bed in the corner.

Through a window was a view of downtown skyscrapers.

Each night they pull out two extra mattresses so they all can sleep.

In a bookcase, food and toys are stored and a small electronic keyboard, the last reminder of the recording studio Jonathan used to own.

He lost his business when his clients stopped being able to pay.

Selling off equipment kept them going for a while, then his grandmother helped out while she could.

The family moved in with friends, until the friends were evicted.

"Three summers ago, we were actually so well off we were looking into buying a house. And then when the economy crashed, it completely screwed me up," Mr Long says.

In fact, this was a dual income family. Mrs Long used to earn money as a massage therapist, until that too dried up through lack of clients.

Now she says the change has been hardest for the children.

"They don't have the space and the toys and the TV and the video games and the DVD player and the movies. We don't have these things anymore. That may be the reason he's been acting out some,' Mrs Long tells me, nodding towards their eldest son, Nathan.

They hadn't heard about the shelter starting to charge a fee.

"Some people here with their attitudes might think it was taking advantage," Jonathan says. "I think it might be weeding out the people who are serious about getting their life straight. It gives you back your pride as a man."

Places like the mission face unprecedented challenges.

They must now reach out to those they help.

And increasingly, even amongst the homeless, there are haves and have-nots.