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KEEPING HOUSE: Coco Hannah keeps the homeless shelter at First Christian Church in order.

Gimme Shelter

A spike in unemployment and a drop in temperature mean a rough holiday season for too many local families

By Jessica Fromm

WE'VE BEEN at capacity every night since it began to freeze," Ray Bramson says. "There are a lot of people on the streets right now that need help. You can't live here for very long without a job. Joblessness quickly leads to homelessness."

Bramson, director of development at Silicon Valley's homeless-services provider EHC LifeBuilders, says that they've seen a spike in demand for emergency shelter beds at their Boccardo Regional Reception Center, a 200-bed shelter in San Jose.

"Unemployment was at 6.9 percent in October," he reports. "That translates to about 65,000 unemployed people in the valley."

Most of the new faces at the Boccardo center fall into the category Bramson describes as "transitionally homeless."

"They're people who are maintaining their jobs, they have had the ability to buy a house, afford rent, support their families, support themselves," he says. "It just became too much with everything converging at this one point."

William and Mary Lasseter are a family in the midst of this painful transition. They will spend the holiday season in the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry shelter in downtown San Jose.

With mattresses on the floor, torn linoleum, cramped quarters and the lingering whiff of industrial-grade cleaner in the air, this is nobody's idea of creature comforts. But for the Lasseters and their 4-year-old son Kordell, the CHAM shelter is a godsend.

"I am more than grateful," says William, a soft-spoken man clad in a faded back long-sleeve shirt and Dickies work pants.

The Lasseters are among five families, including 11 children, spending the holiday week at the homeless shelter located just a few yards from San Jose City Hall. Originally from Fresno, William and Mary have been together for 11 years, legally married for five. After holding down a job and renting homes for all those years, William was unable to find a job in the slowing economy.

"People talk about the economy falling through all over the U.S., but it's really bad in Fresno right now," Lasseter says. "Their classified section went from being like four to five pages worth of just jobs in the Sunday paper to being like half a page. It was incredible."

Their life in Fresno got so bad last month that they finally made the decision to try their luck in San Jose, where they heard jobs were better and more plentiful.

"We were like, 'Forget it, we've been here long enough. We're working ourselves to death and it's not helping, we're not making any progress,'" William says.

Since arriving last month, the Lasseter family's luck hasn't changed.

Homeless for The Holidays

As the economy continues to falter, homelessness and the need for emergency food services have gone up across the board, according to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Homeless advocates and nonprofits are struggling to accommodate a dramatically increasing need for beds and services. Families, the elderly and teenagers are flooding shelters as people are being forced out of their homes and apartments due to foreclosures and lack of employment.

"This year is the worst year, for all the years I've been involved in homelessness, and I've been at it a long time. With the economy, foreclosures and the job losses, they're creating more homeless people," says Pastor Scott Wagers, director of CHAM.

Homelessness has been particularly hard-hitting in the Bay Area, where basic living costs are some of the highest in the country. According to the recent survey, the city of San Francisco has seen the largest rise in homelessness in the United States, going up a shocking 50 percent throughout the city in the 12 months leading up to last October.

The Lasseters are counted in that number of formerly employed people who are now unable to find steady jobs.

"I've had some people tell me, well, it's probably because you're just being lazy," William Lasseter says. "I'm like, shoot, it's never been an issue of being lazy. I don't have an associate or bachelor's degree, and I don't have a class A license with 10 years' driving experience. Those are the only two types of jobs that are open."

Bramson is hearing similar stories every day.

"A lot of the jobs that aren't available are low-wage jobs, and these people don't have the skill-sets, really, to pursue high-paying tech jobs. With a weak job market, and unemployment on the rise, it makes it very hard for a person to, first, find stable housing, then pay for it after they find it."

The shelter, which is jammed, is these people's only option.

When it is freezing outside, the shelter tries to not turn anyone away, but Bramson says sometimes it can't be helped.

"They live out of their cars, they live in unsafe places, under bridges and in the woods," he says. "I mean, if you see people sleeping in the parks in these freezing conditions—these are definitely life-threatening conditions. It's very, very hard for people to be sleeping outside on a night like this."

Former California Assemblymember Sally Lieber knows what Bramson is talking about.

"Its really hard and really stressful to be on the streets in Santa Clara County, a county that I think we all like to imagine has all kinds of services," Lieber says. Last year, Lieber herself lived on the streets of San Jose for a few days, in an effort to gain a firsthand understanding of what challenges homeless individuals face.

"It was a very frustrating experience," she recalls. "You go to where the city of San Jose advises you that there are services available, and you get there, and there is nothing there. There really is not that much usable information out there on which shelters have space, and it's difficult to find shelter space. Its just a very difficult, dehumanizing process."

After a few days in San Jose, the Lasseters were able to get help at a family resource center that referred them to CHAM, where they will be staying for the next two months.

"If it wasn't for them, we'd still be out there in the cold and rain, and everything else," Mary says. "As far as we know, we'd still be waiting to get into one of the other places."

The CHAM homeless shelter inside First Christian Church is clean, but definitely worn in. The group dinner for Friday night consists of a hearty meal of pork and beans, cooked in a giant pot by CHAM staff member Coco Hannah, herself formerly homeless. A large woman full of personality and humor, Coco cooks, cleans and basically runs CHAM when Pastor Scott and the other ministers are not on the premises. Down the small dormlike hallway, privacy is at a minimum. The bedroom doors have been removed, and numerous young children run up and down the hall playing, their shouts echoing loudly off the church's many-dented, wood paneled walls.

The rooms are distinctly lived in, with thick coats of obnoxiously bright paint and wallpaper slapped up on the walls to cover the dents in the plaster. In the Lasseter family's azure-painted room at the end of the hallway, two sheeted mattresses lie directly on the floor. The family's worldly goods are piled up in a mass of black trash bags in the corner.

Foreclosed Out

For many people who have just lost their jobs, it's a long, painfully slow road to foreclosure and total homelessness. Instead of giving up on their home investments after their mortgage goes up, many families are draining their resources by using credit to pay off their mortgage payments.

Once they've tapped out all their credit and financial resources, families find themselves in a much bigger hole than if they would have if they had just walked away from their home in the first place. After finally loosing everything, many families are relying on friends and family for support, but that only lasts for so long.

"I know a lot of people that are trying to not consider themselves homeless," Lieber says. "As long as they can keep their car running and keep enough gas in their car, then in a sense think they aren't homeless. But that is a pretty precarious situation."

Homeless advocates are anticipating that this spike in homeless cases will only get worse in the near future.

"We're really going to see the effects from this particular financial crisis about a year down the road," Bramson says "It's not like the mortgage readjusts and people are forced right out onto the streets. A lot of people have some sort of safety net."

Even though Wagers is deeply troubled by what he is seeing at CHAM and other shelters, he hopes that if people start flooding streets and shelters looking for a roof over their heads, the American people will be mobilized to awareness.

"In our society, homelessness is about charity—feel good once a year when you give things away to the homeless," he says. "But really, homelessness is a result of policy. It's not a priority because it's not enough of a movement. We bail out the wealthy and the powerful, but we blame the homeless, and they're the ones that need a bailout.

"Seven hundred billion dollars would end homelessness like that," Wagers concludes, with the fervor only a Southern-born pastor can muster.

"Soon, we're going to see more and more people who are being foreclosed on becoming homeless, feeling the depression, and we're going to be a movement again to say, 'OK, housing should be our human right.' Its about justice."

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