For a few hours at the mall here this month, Nick Griffith, his wife, Lacey Lennon, and their two young children got to feel like a regular family again.
Never mind that they were just killing time away from the homeless shelter where they are staying, or that they had to take two city buses to get to the shopping center because they pawned one car earlier this year and had another repossessed, or that the debit card Ms. Lennon inserted into the A.T.M. was courtesy of the state’s welfare program.
They ate lunch at the food court, browsed for clothes and just strolled, blending in with everyone else out on a scorching hot summer day. “It’s exactly why we come here,” Ms. Lennon said. “It reminds us of our old life.”
For millions who have lost jobs or faced eviction in the economic downturn, homelessness is perhaps the darkest fear of all. In the end, though, for all the devastation wrought by the recession, a vast majority of people who have faced the possibility have somehow managed to avoid it.
Nevertheless, from 2007 through 2009, the number of families in homeless shelters — households with at least one adult and one minor child — leapt to 170,000 from 131,000, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
With long-term unemployment ballooning, those numbers could easily climb this year. Late in 2009, however, states began distributing $1.5 billion that has been made available over three years by the federal government as part of the stimulus package for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which provides financial assistance to keep people in their homes or get them back in one quickly if they lose them.
More than 550,000 people have received aid, including more than 1,800 in Rhode Island, with just over a quarter of the money for the program spent so far nationally, state and federal officials said.
Even so, it remains to be seen whether the program is keeping pace with the continuing economic hardship.
On Aug. 9, Mr. Griffith, 40, Ms. Lennon, 26, and their two children, Ava, 3, and Ethan, 16 months, staggered into Crossroads Rhode Island, a shelter that functions as a kind of processing and triage center for homeless families, after a three-day bus journey from Florida.
“It hit me when we got off the bus and walked up and saw the Crossroads building,” Ms. Lennon said. “We had all our stuff. We were tired. We’d already had enough, and it was just starting.”
The number of families who have sought help this year at Crossroads has already surpassed the total for all of 2009. Through July, 324 families had come needing shelter, compared with 278 all of last year.
National data on current shelter populations are not yet available, but checks with other major family shelters across the country found similar increases.
The Y.W.C.A. Family Center in Columbus, Ohio, one of the largest family shelters in the state, has seen an occupancy increase of more than 20 percent over the last three months compared with the same period last year. The UMOM New Day Center in Phoenix, the largest family shelter in Arizona, has had a more than 30 percent increase in families calling for shelter over the last few months.
Without national data, it is impossible to say for certain whether these are anomalies. Clearly, however, many families are still being sucked into the swirling financial drain that leads to homelessness.
The Griffith family moved from Rhode Island to Florida two years ago after Mr. Griffith, who was working as a waiter at an Applebee’s restaurant, asked to be transferred to one opening in Spring Hill, an hour north of Tampa, where he figured the cost of living would be lower.
He did well at first, earning as much as $25 an hour, including tips. He also got a job as a line cook at another restaurant, where he made $12 an hour.
The family eventually moved into a three-bedroom condominium and lived the typical suburban life, with a sport-utility vehicle and a minivan to cart around their growing family.
In January, however, the restaurant where Mr. Griffith was cooking closed. Then his hours began drying up at Applebee’s. The couple had savings, but squandered some of it figuring he would quickly find another job. When he did not, they were evicted from their condo.
They lived with Ms. Lennon’s mother at first in her one-bedroom house in Port Richey, Fla., but she made it clear after two months that the arrangement was no longer feasible. The family moved to an R.V. park, paying $186 a week plus utilities. By late July, however, they had mostly run out of options.
They called some 100 shelters in Florida and found that most were full; others would not allow them to stay together.
They considered returning to Rhode Island. An Applebee’s in Smithfield agreed to hire Mr. Griffith. They found Crossroads on the Internet and were assured of a spot. Using some emergency money they had left and $150 lent by relatives, they bought bus tickets to Providence.
Now, the family is crammed into a single room at Crossroads’ 15-room family shelter, which used to be a funeral home. All four sleep on a pair of single beds pushed together. There is a crib for Ethan, but with all the turmoil, he can now fall asleep only when next to his parents. A lone framed photograph of the couple, dressed up for a night out, sits atop a shelf.
The living conditions are only part of the adjustment; there is also the shelter’s long list of rules. No one can be in the living quarters from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The news is even off-limits as television programming in the common area. Residents were recently barred from congregating around the bench outside.
Infractions bring write-ups; three write-ups bring expulsion.
The changes have taken a toll on the family in small and large ways. Ethan has taken to screaming for no reason. Ava had been on the verge of being potty-trained, but is now back to diapers. Their nap schedules and diets are a mess. Their parents are squabbling more and have started smoking again.
Mr. Griffith found that he could work only limited hours at his new job because of the bus schedule. The family did qualify last week for transitional housing, but that usually takes a month to finalize. They are still pursuing rapid rehousing assistance.
Others at the shelter with no job prospects face a steeper climb meeting the requirements.
Every few days, new families arrive. A few hours after the Griffiths got back from the mall, a young woman pushing a stroller with a toddler rang the shelter doorbell, quietly weeping.
By MICHAEL LUO, (NYT),PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Set.2010