PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For a few hours at a mall this month, Nick Griffith, his wife, Lacey Lennon, and their two young children got to feel like a regular family again.
Never mind that they were just killing time away from the homeless shelter where they are staying, or that they had to take two city buses to get to the shopping center because they pawned one car earlier this year and had another repossessed, or that the debit card Lennon inserted into the ATM was courtesy of the state’s welfare program.
They ate lunch at the food court, browsed for clothes and just strolled, blending in with everyone else out on a scorching hot summer day. “It’s exactly why we come here,” Lennon said. “It reminds us of our old life.”
For millions who have lost jobs or faced eviction in the economic downturn, homelessness is perhaps thedarkest fear of all. In the end, though, for all the devastation wrought by the recession, most people who have faced the possibility have somehow managed to avoid it.
Nevertheless, from 2007 through 2009, the number of families in homeless shelters - households with at least one adult and one minor child - leapt to 170,000 from 131,000, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
With long-term unemployment ballooning, those numbers could easily climb this year. Late in 2009, however, states began distributing $1.5 billion that has been made available over three years by the federal government as part of the stimulus package for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which provides financial assistance to keep people in their homes or get them back in one quickly ifthey lose them.
More than 550,000 people have received aid, including more than 1,800 in Rhode Island, with just over a quarter of the money for the program spent so far nationally, state and federal officials said.
Even so, it remains to be seen whether the program is keeping pace with the continuing economic hardship.
On Aug. 9, Griffith, 40, Lennon, 26, and their two children Ava, 3, and Ethan, 16 months, staggered into Crossroads Rhode Island, a shelter that functions as a kind of processing and triage center for homeless families, after a three-day bus journey from Florida.
“It hit me when we got off the bus and walked up and saw the Crossroads building,” Lennon said. “We had all our stuff. We were tired. We’d already had enough, and it was just starting.”
The number of families who have sought help this year at Crossroads has already surpassed the total for all of 2009. Through July, 324 families had come needing shelter, compared with 278 all of last year.
National data on current shelter populations arenot yet available, but checks with other major family shelters across the country found similar increases.
The YWCA Family Center in Columbus, Ohio, one of the largest family shelters in the state, has seen an occupancy increase of more than 20 percent over the past three months compared with the same period last year. Andthe UMOM (United Methodist Outreach Ministries) New Day Center in Phoenix, the largest family shelter in Arizona, has had a more than 30 percent increase in families calling for shelter over the past few months.