As homeless men and women attract national attention, urban missions look for help.

Earlier this fall, members of a panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to study homelessness called the plight of Americans without shelter “an inexcusable disgrace.” Estimates put the number of homeless Americans anywhere from 500,000 to three million (at least 100,000 of those are children). And up to two million people will be homeless one night or more this year.

Many of those without a place to spend the night will seek shelter in urban rescue missions. “We are the ones who do the most with the homeless, because our missions have always been located in the areas where the problem is the worst,” said Stephen E. Burger, director of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and president of the International Union of Gospel Missions (IUGM).

According to Burger, the profile of the typical homeless person is changing. “Twenty years ago, missions worked with older male alcoholics,” Burger said, “but today, the average age of clients served by rescue missions is 31. Seventy-five percent of all who come in are under 40, and 40 percent are women.” Burger also noted that a majority of the homeless visiting shelters are local, as opposed to the transients that frequented shelters in previous years.

Increasingly, said Burger, families are seeking help at shelters. In fact, a study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that one-third of all homeless were families with young children. Moreover, the fastest-growing group of homeless are children under six years of age. “A plant closes in the Midwest, so the family packs up with a couple of thousand dollars and heads west. Within a few weeks, the money is gone, they’re evicted from the ...

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