Willie Mae totters out the front door of the Cooperative Feeding Program in Lauderdale Lakes with an overstuffed grocery bag in hand. The 33-year-old, who is short and has a round, smiling face, stashes the goods in her car trunk, then moves beneath a shade tree in front of her silver, two-door Chevy. The right front tire is almost bare, and the edges are ragged with exposed metal cords. It's not the only thing frayed in her life. This past spring, she was laid off from a local firm along with a half dozen other accountants. With little savings, she couldn't pay the rent on her Lauderdale Lakes apartment. Soon Willie Mae and her 8-year-old daughter had no place to stay. The two now live in an efficiency apartment at a Fort Lauderdale homeless shelter.
"It's been tough," laments Willie Mae, who asked that her last name not be used. Her demeanor is upbeat. "The economy's so terrible now. I've never been in a predicament like this. I used to volunteer at thrift shops and soup kitchens. I just never imagined I'd be one of the people needing help."
Willie Mae represents a growing number of displaced and homeless people in Broward County. In the past year, the Cooperative Food Program served about 1 million meals -- double the total from the year before, according to Lisa Margulis, the program's director of social services. "A lot of families that come in are doubled up, living in their cars, or are just going from friend to friend," Margulis says. "Some are living out in the woods in tents."
Indeed, the number of homeless in Broward County rose 44 percent between September 2000 and February 2002, according to a recently released census by the Broward Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition estimates that 10,000 people are without permanent homes. The increase is particularly dramatic considering that the number had remained relatively constant for ten years and that the total might well have grown in the past nine months. The issue has received virtually no attention in local daily newspapers.
"I think it has to do with the intersection of three major factors," explains Laura Hansen, the coalition's executive director. "First is the economy. Second, escalating housing prices in Broward County. The housing market has gotten tighter and tighter. Housing prices are going up, up." Finally, she notes, Broward County has many low-paying service jobs as part of its tourist economy. The men and women who fill these positions eke out a marginal living and are unable to save much to prepare for an accident or the loss of a job. "Combined with the economic turndown, or mini-recession, or whatever PC word you want to use, more and more people are facing extreme poverty," she says.
While Broward County has been especially hard hit, homelessness increased nationally about 13 percent last year, says Donald Whitehead, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Recent news stories, however, suggest that the problem has grown worse during the latter half of this year. In late October, the New York Times reported that the average number of single adults in the city's shelters was 7,728 per night, the highest since 1991. Soup kitchens there were feeding crowds that rivaled those of the late 1980s, when the number of homeless peaked.
The number of homeless in New York, however, is uncertain because the city takes no formal census of vagrants. On the other coast, in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer reported in October that the city's unhoused population had jumped 18 percent in one year.
The Broward Coalition for the Homeless makes a count every two years. During seven days this past February, 38 county agencies documented 2,950 adults and children living in shelters and on the streets. That compares to 2,050 two years ago. To avoid duplication, individuals were tracked by the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.
"By their very nature, homeless people are difficult to count," Hansen says. "We assume that if we find one, there are a couple more out there." The coalition adjusts the actual head count upward to compensate for those assumed to have been missed, which is how it arrived at the 10,000 figure.
There is no strict definition of a homeless person. The coalition's 2002 census defined a person as homeless if he or she lived in a shelter, like Willie Mae, or in a place not meant for human habitation, such as a car, park, or abandoned building. Also included were people living in a home from which eviction was imminent or an institution -- jail or treatment center, for example -- from which he or she would be discharged within a week.
"Do you catch more people one year than another?" Hansen poses a rhetorical question. "Probably yes, but in the past ten years [until 2002], whatever impact that has had has been marginal."
Margulis, who was in charge of the census in 2000, says she was not surprised by the big jump, given what she's seen at the cooperative's food kitchen and pantry. In fact, she believes the population is higher than 10,000. "It's a very lowball number," she says.
The estimate for this year elicited heated debate among officials at agencies that care for the homeless. That's to be expected because the stakes are high. Each year, county and state taxpayers pump millions of tax dollars into the county's three emergency shelters in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, and Pompano Beach. (The third opened six months after the census was taken.)
So just what good, some might ask, is all that money doing anyway?
"All of a sudden, we come out with the information that our population has doubled for the first time in ten years," Hansen says. "That concerned a lot of people. We went through more checks and double checks than we ever have before."
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Still, a recent coalition news release announcing the 10,000 homeless figure was careful not to mention a doubling from the prior census, describing it instead as a "significant increase."
That cautious wording may be due in part to the input of Georgiana Herzberg, a professor of occupational therapy at Nova Southeastern University, which donated the statistical analysis for the project. Herzberg, whose name appears on the press release, asserts that the two censuses cannot easily be compared. "Well, you can, but it's sort of irresponsible to do so, is my feeling," she says. "We don't know what methodology was followed two years ago."
"There are improvements in the methodology each year, but I can't disagree with Dr. Herzberg," says Steve Werthman, administrator for Broward's Homeless Initiative Partnership. "Because there are some changes from year to year, it is very difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison."
Willie Mae isn't aware of the haggling over the numbers. She believes better times are at hand for her: She'll begin working as an office manager this month. Then she'll look for an affordable apartment -- less than $600 a month -- in a decent neighborhood. She knows that won't be easy.