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Homeless remain America's 'invisible population'

By Jesse Muhammad -Staff writer- | Last updated: Nov 15, 2010 - 3:40:01 PM

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Homeless men and women line up on Oct. 3 near downtown Houston during one of many food giveaways hosted by the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque No. 45. The city is preparing to observe the National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week to bring awareness to the continuing issue.

HOUSTON (FinalCall.com) - According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, each year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness and on any given night, over 700,000 people are homeless.

Take a stroll near downtown Houston and you may run into 46-year-old James Francis, an unemployed homeless Black male who has been battling with a drug addiction the last 10 years.

“I usually don't talk to people about what I'm going through because I'm not looking for sympathy. I know I'm out here because of my mistakes, my addiction, and my lack of taking responsibility,” Mr. Francis told The Final Call.

November is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month and the week before Thanksgiving (November 14-20) has been officially declared National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. During this week, a number of schools, communities and cities take part in a nationwide effort to bring greater awareness to the problems of hunger and homelessness.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and possesses the third highest homeless population in the nation. Approximately 15,000 homeless individuals in Houston live in abandoned buildings, on cardboard makeshift beds, under freeways, and in shelters throughout the city.

“It's a serious situation not only here in Houston but all over America. We've become the invisible population. Who really cares about us? It's really small organizations and churches that come out here to help us. I am determined to get back on my feet,” said Mr. Francis, who was once employed as a construction worker.

Sixty-year-old Ernest Gates, who has been on the Houston streets for 15 years with an alcohol addiction, is among the 2,500 veterans of the armed services that make up 23 percent of the city's homeless population. He's unemployed with no family to call upon.

“I fell on hard times after losing my job and I have been living under bridges since. But I always appreciate when people bring something that will help no matter if it's a sandwich or a dollar,” he said.

“President Obama has made homelessness a priority in his administration in several ways. One way is he attached the issue to the stimulus and allocated $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention,” Neil Donovan, National Coalition for the Homeless executive director told The Final Call.

Mr. Donovan also noted President Obama is enforcing “zero tolerance” for the existence of homeless war vets and has held White House officials accountable for developing strategic plans of action.

Over the last year, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, consisting of 19 federal agencies, responded by drafting the nation's first comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness. In June, the council unveiled and submitted to the president and Congress its strategic plan titled “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.”

The long-term goals of the council are to end chronic homelessness in five years; prevent and end homelessness among veterans in five years; and prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children within 10 years.

“For a quarter century, we've known that ending homelessness is bigger than any one agency or level of government. During that time, we've failed to tackle homelessness not because we lacked the resources—but the leadership to harness those resources. With President Obama in the White House, we have a president who believes that no one should experience homelessness,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who chairs the council.

Analysis by the coalition shows some of the top reasons why people are homeless in America include foreclosures, poverty, less secure jobs, declining availability of public assistance, addiction disorders, and mental illnesses.

The sheltered homeless population is estimated to be 42 percent Black, 38 percent White, 20 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Native American and 2 percent Asian.

Studies indicate that children make up 23 percent of those experiencing homelessness while 40 percent of homeless men have served in the armed forces. Every night in America an estimated 100,000 veterans are homeless in the streets or housed in relief centers.

Noah Rattler, who went on an 1800 mile walk in 2007 from Houston to Los Angeles to raise awareness for homelessness, is spearheading the Bayou City's annual Sleep Out on Nov. 13.

“This year we wanted to go beyond just having one location but instead encourage people to host their own sleep out wherever they are. We want to spread the awareness further,” Mr. Rattler told The Final Call.

The objective of the Houston Sleep Out is to allow the general population to financially contribute to the fight against homelessness, while giving participants a small glimpse into a night in the life of the millions of people by spending a night outside on cardboard boxes in various part of the city. The Sleep Out raised over $100,000 between 2008 and 2009 for SEARCH Homeless Services.

Nation of Islam's Muhammad Mosque No. 45, situated in the 3rd Ward, will be one of the participating groups. Their bi-weekly feed the homeless outreach has been spearheaded by Sister Mattie X for the past 10 years and she will deliver the keynote address at the mosque's Sleep Out gathering.

“It's depressing to see so many children in the streets when we're out there. If we don't do something, then nothing will get done. I have been inspired by Allah (God) to stay on this mission to help as many people as we can,” said Sister Mattie.

Other participating groups in Houston will be My Fellow Man Alliance, Noah's Kitchen and the Harris County Coalition for the Homeless. Also student organizations from Texas Southern University and University of Houston.

(For more information about the Houston Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, visit www.hhhaw.us.)

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