Homeless US families find little to cheer at Christmas

The Aristocrat Motel provides shelter for families in Denver, Colorado, who have joined the growing ranks of the homeless

With the gap between rich and poor widening in the US, the world's richest nation is now struggling to employ, house, and feed its poorest, as the BBC finds in two American cities.

Across the frozen plains of Colorado it is bitingly cold at this time of year. The temperature is often below zero on most days.

In the state's capital, Denver, America's new homeless venture out into the bitter evening air, victims of an economic downturn that started during the last presidential election year in 2008 and will continue into the 2012 election cycle.

Angelo McWilliams is one of those joining the new ranks of the homeless in Denver. A single father of three children, he has just joined the record numbers of Americans who face a bleak Christmas as the impact of the economic downturn filters through to the country's poorest citizens.

Mr McWilliams checks into the Aristocrat Motel, a boxy two-story building with a rather optimistic name run by the charity Volunteers of America. The US may be the richest country in the world, but the American dream seems a distant memory for him and his children.

When the paperwork is signed and the keys handed over, Mr McWilliams and his three kids haul a pile of bags upstairs to a small room. This will be home until they can arrange something more permanent. After losing his job at a catering firm, the harsh reality of hard times ahead has set in.

"It's hard. It's unforgiving. No one is really going to help you," he says.

'Not much of a Christmas'

The economy is likely to be the key issue in next year's presidential election, and the latest census data suggests that nearly one in two people in the US have either fallen into poverty or are struggling to get by on a low income.

Homeless US military veterans receive information on free government services at a 'Stand Down' event in Denver, Colorado, 3 November 2011 Homeless shelters offer a place for comfort and food in harsh times

Angelo McWilliams is not alone. Accurate figures are difficult to come by, but as many as 3.5 million Americans are thought to have had need of shelter at some point in the year. There has been a sharp rise in the number of people homeless for the first time, especially families with children.

Robert and Victoria Venegas and their six children have been living at the Aristocrat Motel for nearly two months.

From dawn to dusk it's a scene of well-oiled chaos in two cramped rooms. Clothes are piled in one corner, food in the other, and toys are stuffed under the beds. As his 18-month old twin boys bounce around the room, Robert tries to help his daughter with her maths homework.

With tears in her eyes Victoria talks about the rented property they once called home. The family had to leave when they were unable to meet the monthly payments when Robert lost his job as a painter and decorator this autumn.

Start Quote

I can't go. I've been here since 1957. It's worse now, no jobs. It's hard for the young men to make any money”

End Quote James Martin Detroit resident

"We had a home, we had a yard for the kids to play in. We had two dogs, two wonderful dogs that we don't have any more. And I was able to cook. I used to make dinner every night and now I can't even cook for my family. That's hard.

"My kids know we're not going to have much of a Christmas this year and they're OK with that. As long as we have each other."

She recalls the attitude of Brailin, one of her daughters: "She was like, mom, even if we do get presents, can we just wrap them up and give them to the other kids?"

Broken governments

Many Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold - roughly $45,000 (£28,700) for a family of four - because of pay cuts, a forced reduction of work hours or a spouse losing a job. Housing and child-care costs are consuming up to half of a family's income.

States in the South and West had the highest proportion of low-income families, among them Arizona, New Mexico and South Carolina. They have scaled back or eliminated aid programs for the needy.

The General Motors world headquarters in Detroit, Michigan is shown behind a homeless person's shanty 30 March 2009 The motor city of Detroit has become famous for its urban deprivation and poverty

The states with the most number of low-income homes were California and Texas, each with more than one million.

Detroit has been ravaged by the decline of the car industry and industrial decay.

The problem is so acute that in November, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing went public with his fears in a highly unusual televised address.

"Simply put, our city is in a financial crisis and city government is broken. This is fact," he said.

Mr Bing runs one of 29 cities across the US where reportedly more than one in four people who need emergency food assistance did not receive it.

Unemployment in parts of the city are over 20% - more than twice the national average - and house prices in some suburbs have collapsed. The city has the unwelcome distinction of being one of the most violent in America.

Bernadine and James Martin can be best described as survivors. They have lived through the worst that Detroit has to offer and refuse to leave even though they struggle to make ends meet.

They provide food, shelter and real-world counselling to the young men and women of the neighbourhood, through the organisation Building Better Adults.

We met a group of young men who have been dropping in to the couple's house for years. There they get a glass of Kool-Aid, perhaps a slice of pizza and some home-spun therapy in an area where poverty, drug-dealing and violence are often a way of life.

"Sometimes I get discouraged and I get weary and I tell my husband 'let's get out of here' but then I think about it and I think we're ordained to stay because of how the kids come to us, how they open up to us. I think that God placed us here to do this work," says Bernadine.

James adds: "I can't go. I've been here since 1957. It's worse now, no jobs. It's hard for the young men to make any money."

James and Bernadine volunteer at a local church which tries to feed both body and soul. Free food is handed out to the poor at least three times a week. Now they are stocking up for Christmas.

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