January 13, 2013

Our View: Homeless services feel the pinch of a lost generation

Maine's homeless population is not only growing, but it is also growing older. Of the chronically homeless, members of one demographic group -- men born between 1955 and 1964 -- are almost twice as likely to show up at a shelter looking for a place to sleep.

They are also more likely to have health problems related to late middle age and aggravated by a hard life on the street. These people are more likely to need emergency medical, psychiatric or dental care, and their needs put a strain on an overburdened system.

This is not the first time this group of men has been noticed by human service providers. The group was first identified in the 1990 census, when they were about 30. In 2000, a large group of homeless men around age 40 was recorded. In 2010, the group was seen again, this time around age 50.

These were people who came of age during the recessions in the 1970s and early 1980s. They aged as the economy shed good jobs for unskilled workers, and budgets for antipoverty programs were cut.

Now as they head toward their 60th birthdays, they are unlikely to benefit from a slow-moving economic recovery, even if the unemployment rate starts to drop.

This is not only a problem for area hospitals or state, municipal or nonprofit social service providers. It provides powerful testimony about the persistent effects of poverty and the dangers posed by the long economic downturn we are now suffering.

Young people in school or entering the work force will be affected by their early experience for the rest of their lives. Interfering with a smooth transition will create expensive problems for society, decades into the future.

The time to help people find independence is before their problems become too hard to fix. Before another generation hits the streets for a lifetime, state government should maximize its efforts to help young people find a place in the economy.

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