Homeless in suburbia

In the 1950s, Americans regarded the suburbs as gateways to middle-class prosperity. Highways, the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration all helped fuel the growth of a new residential frontier for the Greatest Generation, and millions of Americans took advantage of the opportunity they represented to leave the cares of city life behind.

But in the 60 years since then, the reality of suburban living has changed. The tree-lined developments with spacious lawns and a car (or two) in every driveway are no longer the Utopian communities they once were thought to be, places where poverty and crime could not enter. Instead, suburbs increasingly have become more like the cities their residents initially sought to escape, except that they lack much of the social services infrastructure necessary to deal with the kinds of problems cities have faced for decades.

As The Sun's Alison Knezevich reported last week, while the poverty rate in Baltimore City is higher than in its suburbs — 25 percent compared to 8 percent — the total number of suburban residents living below the federal poverty line, defined as an annual income of about $23,500 for a family of four, is now higher than in the city. As the suburbs have grown in population they've also become more economically diverse, while the suburbanization of poverty has stripped away their aura of exclusivity and affluence.

One consequence of that change has been an explosion in the suburban homeless population that rivals that of the city — and that the counties are ill-prepared to handle. In Baltimore County, for example, officials estimate about 550 people stay in shelters every night — the county operates two large shelters and several smaller facilities — while another 200 are sleeping on the streets. Workers at Sarah's Hope at Hannah More, a recently opened women's shelter in Reisterstown operated by the Catholic charity organization St. Vincent de Paul, say they are inundated with calls from people seeking shelter in one of their 85 beds and often must turn people away.

Some of the homeless at Sarah's Hope are people who have lived in poverty for years, but they are only a small minority of the shelter's clients. Most of the people who seek help there are women with children who have recently lost a job, suffered an illness that caused them to miss work or been socked with a big bill they couldn't handle that landed them on the streets. They are the working poor struggling to make ends meet on minimum-wage jobs who just managed to get by until they suffered some catastrophic event that ended up tipping them over the edge into homelessness.

During the 2008 recession, some 91.6 million people — more than 30 percent of the nation's population — fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and between 2000 and 2008 suburbs in the country's largest metropolitan areas saw their population of poor people increase by 25 percent. That was more than five times faster than poverty increased in the cities, and it was a major driver of the increase in the number of homeless people living in the suburbs. At the same time the foreclosure crisis led to many older suburban residents losing their homes and slipping down the economic ladder. And the weak recovery that followed the recession has made it harder than ever for people to dig themselves out and regain their independence.

That's why Baltimore's surrounding counties need to step up to the plate with additional resources to help their most vulnerable citizens. To its credit, Baltimore County is supporting groups like Sarah's Hope with public funds to keep their doors open, but this must be a region-wide effort whose success every jurisdiction has a stake in supporting. Helping homeless people get back on their feet is no longer something that only cities like Baltimore need to do, because the problem not only doesn't stop at the county line, it's getting worse on the other side.

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