SAN MATEO, Calif. — Two years into a merciless downward spiral, Antonio Moore was threatened with living on the street.
He had lost his $75,000-a-year job as a mortgage consultant, his three-bedroom house with a Jacuzzi, his Lexus sedan. He could no longer pay even the rent on his cramped studio apartment — not on his $10-an-hour part-time job as a fry cook at a fast food restaurant.
Faced with eviction, he was staring last month at the imminent prospect of joining the teeming ranks of the homeless. His last hope was a new $1.5 billion federal program aimed at preventing that fate.
Days after Mr. Moore applied, a check for $775 was on its way to his landlord, enabling him to stay — at least for now.
Much like the Great Depression, when millions of previously working people came to rely on a new social safety net for their sustenance, a swelling group of formerly middle-class Americans like Mr. Moore, 30, is seeking government aid for the first time. Without help, say economists, many are at risk of slipping permanently into poverty, even as economic conditions improve.
The question is whether the modern-day safety net has enough money and the right initiatives to aid those who need it most. The answer could shape whether a considerable slice of the American population will recover from the trauma of recent years, and how long that will take.
The plight of people like Mr. Moore has little to do with the complex, intertwined causes of homelessness of decades past, like substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. The current surge stems directly from the recession: Millions have lost their jobs or suffered a sharp drop in earnings. They have drained their savings, losing the ability to pay their rent.
“Nationally, homelessness has now reached crisis proportions not seen since the Great Depression,” says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
The severity of the situation prompted the Obama administration to create the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program within the $787 billion economic stimulus package. The program rests on the assumption that intervention is the best course because once people become homeless, the odds and costs of regaining their lives escalate sharply.
“This allows us to reorient a system that is focused on fixing a problem after it happens to preventing the problem,” said Shaun Donovan, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the program. “This is the single most important thing the federal government has ever done on family homelessness. It’s a transformative tool.”