They used to be the invisible people. They had dirty coats, pants or skirts and rolled stockings, maybe a grimy hat or scarf and, like The Invisible Man in the movies, no face. You could step over them almost without a qualm because, although it was a shame, they chose to live like that. Suddenly, in the past few years, it all seems to have changed. Suddenly they have faces, like us.

The homeless of this hard winter, appearing in numbers that in some places rival those of the Great Depression, fit no stereotypes. They are young, laid-off steelworkers in Gary, Ind. who have taken to the streets so that their families can qualify for welfare benefits. They are families in Northern California's once-booming Silicon Valley where they went for promised jobs that disappeared when they hit town. They are black-and-blue women who bundled their kids off to a Washington, D.C. shelter rather than stay home with a violent husband; former mental patients who got a ticket to Houston's Greyhound bus terminal—and nothing else—upon release from an institution; 16 year olds who ran away from unhappy homes and never bargained for a cheerless winter on the streets of Seattle, and a penniless old woman who finally died last month after more than a year of living in Manhattan's Grand Central Station. And some of them are plain, old-fashioned bums. A small percentage fits that description.

The rest are the new homeless. In May 1984, the Reagan Administration estimated the country's unhoused population at only 250,000 to 350,000, but the numbers were so low that at a congressional hearing Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Gonzalez likened the figures to Nazi propaganda. Advocates for the homeless, who favor high estimates as much as the government pushes low ones, put the number at or somewhere between two and three million people. No one can actually count people who move from place to place daily or huddle under bridges in Houston or Baltimore. But 100 or so reports on the subject agree: The number of people seeking shelter has increased dramatically during the past few years. In New York City there were 700 homeless families in shelters in 1983; in 1985 there were more than 4,000. Eighty percent of the shelters in Chicago reported an increase in demand for beds for 1985: 16,000 people were turned away because of overcrowding last year. A UCLA study says that 64 percent of the homeless in L.A. have been on the street less than a year, 25 percent have finished high school and 7.1 percent hold bachelor's degrees or higher. Nationally, the average age of the homeless is 34, a new low; 21 percent are families; and in some cities as many as one-third are Vietnam vets. "Homelessness is a massive epidemic," a congressional committee report declared last April, "so overwhelming that the problem must be treated as a national emergency."

Somehow it just doesn't make sense. These are supposed to be the proud, made-in-America years. We're the country that raised all that money for the starving in Ethiopia. How can this happen here?

One answer is that there aren't enough low-cost living spaces anymore. During the 1970s urban renewal did away with a million or so rooms—about half the country's total—in hotels that used to rent single rooms to poor people. In Detroit, nine vacant housing units are destroyed or upgraded in price every day. In Miami there is a waiting list of 15,000—and a delay of up to 25 years—to get into 6,000 low-income units. Moreover, as rentals become scarce, rents go up. In 1980 seven million families paid more than half their income for housing; many eventually lost their homes and couldn't find a cheaper place to live.

At the same time, the federal budget since 1983 has slotted only $70 million a year for direct aid to the homeless, about one-third of what New York City alone spent in 1984. The new street people aren't getting many other benefits, either. Many, perhaps most, receive no public assistance, including food stamps and Social Security. Some don't know how to get benefits; others don't qualify because they lack a permanent address. Most cities give the homeless even shorter shrift and spend nothing on them. Thousands jam understaffed private shelters that scrape by with no public funds.

Probably the greatest contributors to the size of the homeless population, however, are state mental hospitals. In the '50s and '60s, as new drugs were found to help the emotionally disturbed cope with their problems, hospitals released more and more patients. President Kennedy signed a bill to create a network of aftercare centers to help these people rejoin society, but only about 700 of the estimated 2,000 centers required were actually built. Left to fend for themselves, many of the mentally ill forget to take their medication (or are robbed of it), become disoriented and end up in shelters. "We encounter nightmare cases," says Seattle advocate Ken Cole. "People who have been off desperately needed medication for months or even years."

Administration sources argue that unemployment, which dropped from 7.4 percent last January to 6.9 percent by December, is not a factor. "If we had any homelessness created by the economy, that homelessness would have been totally resolved," says June Koch, a Reagan Administration spokeswoman. "If there was a problem, it's well over, but probably there wasn't a problem." Shelter workers in areas where industry has faltered say otherwise. "Five years ago we would have people from the local labor pool in looking for people to work," says Alice Gertz, a social worker with Cincinnati's Salvation Army. "Today there are no spot-level jobs and few entry-level jobs. But people want to work."

In Europe, homelessness has grown for many of the same reasons as in the U.S.: cutbacks in low-income housing and deinstitutionalization of mental patients. Rough estimates place about 25,000 homeless in Paris, 27,500 in London and 20,000 in Rome. But these cities tend to manage the problem better. A recent survey found that all but 200 people found housing on one particular night in London, most with government aid.

There are a few bright spots in the bleak U.S picture. California, one of six states to target money for the homeless, budgeted $34.9 million for low-income housing and $9.6 million for shelters this fiscal year. New York City's Mayor Koch signed a freeze on the demolition of single-room-occupancy hotels and promised to renovate 4,000 apartments a year for low-income housing. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have begun a five-year, $100 million program to improve housing and care for the mentally ill in eight cities.

Such scattered programs can't change the basic prospect: The crisis may well grow worse. The Human Resources Administration predicts that homelessness in New York City will have risen by 500 percent between 1980 and 1987. People without boots cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Whether it comes from cities, states, the nation or private effort, they need help. Until they get it, they have no place to turn but the cold mean streets.