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February 27, 2005
A Day in the Life of the Homeless in America

by Sharon Cohen
From villages to large cities, homelessness has spread like dye through the weave of America's social fabric. A single day in the life of the homeless reveals hundreds of thousands without shelter, and blame goes to everything from the lack of affordable housing and unemployment to drug abuse, mental illness and a flawed foster care system.

The family sleeps in a single room, its walls bare and windowless, its cracked concrete floor crowded with plastic storage bins and three mattresses: one for dad, one for mom and daughter, one for the three young sons. Fluorescent lights will flicker on at 6 a.m., to start their new day. This room in an old red-brick factory-turned-shelter in Chicago is home for the Torres family.

They consider themselves lucky to be here. They have a warm place to stay. They have three meals a day. And they have each other. The family is among an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people who, on any given night in America, lack a real home.

Homelessness exploded as a politically potent issue during the Reagan era of the 1980s, and according to some estimates, the number of those without a permanent place to live has doubled in the last 20 years. But some experts say more people now fall into that category only because billions of dollars have been spent to build shelters.

Americans are troubled by this issue: An Associated Press poll taken Feb. 11-13 found 53 percent consider homelessness a very serious problem, while 36 percent say it's somewhat serious. Some 56 percent see the long-term homeless as victims of circumstances beyond their control, according to the survey. It was conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs among 1,001 adults and had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

For a snapshot, AP reporters and photographers spent 24 hours earlier this month meeting with people who live on the streets and in shelters, following them to their jobs, watching them in court and talking with those who try to help them.

Here are their stories:

After Midnight: Portland, Maine.

Scotty Partridge is restless and pacing outside a blue tent pitched in the muddy soil among the barren spruce trees on the outskirts of Portland. "Hobo Jungle" has been his home for nearly a year. The months have taken their toll: Partridge's clothes are dirty and frayed. The skin of his wind-burned cheeks hangs loosely, like someone who has lost weight too quickly.

On this 35-degree night, most of Portland's homeless are two miles away in the Oxford Street Shelter, sleeping on rows of mats four inches apart.

But Partridge prefers a tent he has furnished with plywood, a radio, a battery-operated television and a discarded propane heater. He has a cell phone, too - paid for by panhandling and collecting aluminum cans.

Partridge, 36, swigs a can of Milwaukee's Best and reminisces about the days when he had a good job at a printing company in Chicago, a nice apartment, a woman he was going to marry.

But when the relationship soured in the early 1990s, he returned home to Maine and moved in with a friend who was using heroin. Partridge soon became hooked, too.

On methadone for five years, Partridge survives day to day.

"I can't get up and go to work out of a tent," he says. "I need a stable environment to get up and shave, shower, and clean, feel normal and go. When you're in a tent, every day is so hard. ... Your priorities are so whacked out. ... You think about, OK, how am I going to eat today and how are my boots going to unthaw because they're frozen solid? ...

"I go and crawl into my tent and then it's another day," he says. "... Being homeless is a full-time job."

Almost Dawn: New York City.

John Mitchell rises for work with a siren blaring inside a homeless shelter in Harlem - a signal for the nearly 200 residents to line up for twice-a-week drug tests.

A 47-year-old former crack addict, Mitchell says he was in and out of prison and homeless for more than 20 years, robbing people for drug money and digging through trash cans for food.

"I was that type of guy that, guess what, you didn't want to see on the streets," Mitchell says. "I came to the conclusion this time around I learned what that word surrender means."

Seven months ago, the father of two teens became sober and entered the city's "Ready Willing & Able" program that provides shelter (10 men to a room), hot meals and a job cleaning the streets that pays up to $7 an hour.

Mitchell's infectious laugh and ready quips make him the unofficial leader of the crew working the West Side this morning. He sweeps the streets and dumps garbage cans, the steady rain dripping off his nose.

His mind is on the future - he's studying at night to be a nurse's aide.

"I gotta keep saying, this is not going to last forever, there's a bigger picture," he says. "It's like riding a bike ... right now I'm using training wheels. Before I know it, I'll be popping a wheelie."

8:30 A.M.: Chicago.

A 10-degree wind chill whips through the North Side streets of Chicago as 6-year-old Angelina Torres, in her pink wool hat, and her twin, Angel, in his Spiderman gloves, make their way to kindergarten.

Their mom, Eileen Rivera, leads the way on the seven-block walk. Her two older sons, Omar, 9, and JJ, 10, have already left for another school - a bus picked them up at 8 a.m. at the Sylvia Center, the shelter where the family has lived for eight months.

Her arms folded against the cold, Rivera walks briskly, noting her twins have stayed in shelters about half their lives. "They just blend right in." She pauses, then adds: "It's sad."

Her husband, Jesus Torres, recently found work operating a forklift, earning $7 an hour. The husky, outgoing father has been a handyman, pizza delivery man, ice cream cart driver, cashier and drug store clerk - sometimes working in exchange for welfare checks.

The Torreses are on waiting lists for public and subsidized housing.

Rivera tells her children this is just a steppingstone. "Guys," she says, "we have to do this just a little longer. We have to go through this to get to the shining star."

Rivera knows exactly what that will be: "Your own toilet. Your own tissues. Your own bath. Your own window. Things that are yours. Just yours."

9 A.M.: Miami.

Retha Ann Cain shuffles her shackled feet into a sixth-floor Miami courtroom.

The 19-year-old was homeless before she was jailed for prostitution. And when her latest 180-day sentence is up in March, she will be again.

Cain has been on and off the streets, in and out of foster care since she was 14. She says she was molested as a child by two male relatives. She ran away from Akron, Ohio, at 17 with a boyfriend and moved to sunny Miami.

The two live in a tent. Her world-weary face belies her youth - except when she allows herself a smile.

Cain was already serving time for prostitution when she appeared before Circuit Jud

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