NEW YORK -- A new wave of the homeless is showing up in the nation's shelters as chronic homelessness, once an anomaly in America, extends its grip over a second generation.
In the past few months, shelter operators in areas as diverse as the South Bronx, St. Louis and Savannah, Ga., have begun to track the emerging trend, which has alarmed social service providers already crushed by the demands of an ever-growing, ever-needy population.
For the first time since the United States began the wholesale sheltering of the homeless nearly a decade ago, social service agencies are taking note of this new twist to the homeless family: people, such as 20-year-old Wanda Kemp, who spent time in shelters as children and who now are back as adults, this time with families of their own.
"This was the only way for us to start over," said the well-spoken Ms. Kemp, who lives in a family shelter in a battered section of Brooklyn with her 2-year-old son, Kennith, and 3-month-old Keyaira. Ms. Kemp has lived with relatives, friends and in shelters since her grandmother died four years ago. "There was no place else to go," she said.
"You know, when we open the door here and Kennith yells, 'We're home!' I think to myself, 'No, baby, we're not home yet,' " said Ms. Kemp as she readjusted a sleeping Keyaira on her shoulder. "Kennith has been bounced around from place to place since he was born. I tell you, once I get my own apartment, I'll never mess up. All I'll have to remember are the times we've spent here. I'm in here for one reason only, and that's to get out."
Though the numbers of the homeless have not been documented, some shelter providers on the front lines of the national crisis believe the emerging category Ms. Kemp represents to be significant, and growing.
"These people have become prisoners of the shelter system," said Thomas Kenyon, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington. "We're creating a whole class of homeless people."
"While the numbers may not be huge, it's something we all should become aware of because it's going to grow -- it has to grow. In many cities, there's no affordable, permanent housing to move into. These people are being transitioned -- to no place. It's all so horribly predictable."
Social scientists say the new grouping raises serious questions, most notably: Are shelters, where families live months at a time, creating a dependency among residents, who in increasing numbers have never had a place of their own? Even more to the point: How do you break the poverty-driven cycle?
"The notion that homelessness is reaching into a second generation is very scary," said Kenneth M. Murphy, deputy commissioner of Crisis Intervention Services for New York City, which will provide emergency housing for an estimated 13,000 families this year. "We're talking about a group of people that's coming from the same pool, that's what's frightening. And unless we start building housing for these folks, nothing is going to change."
In Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, shelter providers are picking up bits and pieces of the trend. Little, however, has been documented; most evidence is anecdotal.
"We're hearing stories of children in shelters who have said, 'Yeah, my mama was in here when she was a kid,' and that's something we haven't seen before," said Gordon Johnson, director of Hull House Association, a community service organization in Chicago.
"Children are growing up in shelters as parents begin to treat these places as a regular part of life. They are starting to look at shelters as the end of the road instead of the beginning."
At Antioch Shelter in Baltimore, Director Joyce Galloway recalled a 16-year-old girl who received refuge with her mother a couple of years ago. The girl, now 18 and pregnant, has a 1-year-old. Recently, she and her child were back in the shelter.
"The same kinds of problems are still out there," said Ms. Galloway. "The girl who was victimized as a child is an adult now. She knows the system and she's back, this time with her own child."
In New York, which operates the nation's largest family shelter system, a data analyst picked up the trend five months ago, when he noticed the same names popping up in a computer analysis of shelter clients.
"We've been talking about this for over a year, but no one wants to listen," said Ralph Da Costa Nunez, president of Homes for the Homeless, a non-profit agency in New York that serves homeless families. "You've got children 'aging out,' and they've got no place to go. For many, they're back in the shelter system because it's what they've known. They are in droves entering the shelter system, and many have their own children. Look out, because this is just the beginning."
What is alarming to Mr. Nunez is that many of the children his agency serves have never had a home of their own. Their actions are telling: One girl thought hotels were only for homeless people, because she lives in a Holiday Inn converted into transitional housing. Before that, she had lived in welfare hotels.
"You bet it's frightening," said Mr. Nunez. "Kids are beginning to see transitional housing as their home. What we've found is that you break the cycle through the kids. They have to learn that this is not the norm."
Mr. Nunez estimated that as many as 20 percent of the 440 families that live in Homes for the Homeless transitional housing are headed by adults who had shelter experiences as children. The majority of those who seek shelter in the vast New York system -- an entry point into public housing -- come not from their own homes but from apartments they shared with other families or friends.
"What we must remember is that it's the system that's failing and not the people themselves," warned Jane Harrison, a consultant to those she calls the "unhoused" in Baltimore. "The system isn't providing anything to keep people from being unhoused. Of course, this type trend is going to develop. This is probably just the groundswell. But it isn't just affordable housing we're talking about but jobs with wages that support people, economic issues and self-management issues. Temporary measures do absolutely nothing except mark time."
Nationwide, it is believed that one-third of homeless are families. Sixty percent of homeless children are under 6 years old; one of five homeless mothers is pregnant. While there are plenty of statistics and estimates to sound the alarm, even experts are unsure about the makeup of homeless families.
"We don't know where they're from. We don't know their histories. We haven't asked the questions," said Julie Hardin of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a New Jersey-based health care philanthropy that is about to launch one of the most comprehensive studies ever done of the nation's homeless families.
The project will track 1,200 families in nine cities, including Baltimore, over several years after they move from shelters into permanent housing. The program includes federal rent subsidies, health care and social services.
Later this year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness will sponsor a national conference on children that will explore the issue of second-generation homelessness and ways to curb the cycle.
"To me, the really scary part is that virtually everybody we're successful with is a prime candidate to repeat homelessness," said the Rev. Micheal Elliott, who runs a shelter in Savannah.
Homelessness has reached such proportions that many shelters and support organizations have provided the basics alone: food, clothing, shelter. But now shelters are including additional components: workshops on hygiene, nutrition, parenting. People learn how to brush their teeth, why milk is important for babies, how to discipline children.
Some agencies, such as Homes for the Homeless, are beginning to include after-care programs, in which families are matched with mentors after they move into a house.
"You cannot just give up on a family after they walk out the door. There are continuing issues of domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, health. A lot of families go on to make it, but it's an incremental process; you just have to accept that," said Mr. Nunez.
From her office window at the Jackson Family Residence in the South Bronx, shelter Director Barbara Rosenberg observed blocks of abandoned and boarded-up buildings and sidewalks littered with tires, trash and junkies.
At a subway station one block away, three people have been mugged and one murdered in the past month. One of the mugging victims was a shelter aide. Some cab companies won't venture into the neighborhood, even in broad daylight.
"Sometimes," Ms. Rosenberg said, "you just have to open a door. Take the kids to the Whitney Museum, take them to the Bronx Zoo. They look out these windows here and all they see are abandoned buildings and junkies. For many, it's all they've known."