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LOCAL Commentary :: Poverty

The Ehrlich Report

The number of homeless seems to be growing and the facilities for housing them seems to be shrinking. Is this the way to treat the poor?
The Ehrlich Report
Without a Place to Sleep

It is probably true that there is a genuine sympathetic regard for the underdog in the American character. Nonetheless, there is a paradox here. The weak and the powerless are often the victims of abuse or the targets of violence. The societal response to their victimization is frequently that of either blaming them for their own victimization or labeling them as someone who “got what they deserved.”

At the same time there is a mean-spirited disregard for the victims of society. You might think that it would be hard to say that about the homeless. Unfortunately, it is not. Picture the scene that was virtually faddish in some circles just a few years ago–a homeless man sleeping at a subway stop is doused with gasoline then set afire. Torching, stoning, physically attacking the homeless has occurred with such frequency that there has been a national drive to declare such assaults as “hate crimes.” In fact, Maryland has been the second state to do so. On the one side it is little more than a symbolic gesture. The charge of a hate crime is highly unlikely to serve as a deterrent to those motivated to commit such an act. On the other side, hate crimes do carry with them an “enhanced penalty.” A crime presumably motivated by hate may cause the courts to add several years to the sentence or an increased fine to those convicted.
Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors conducted a 23-city survey of the homeless. That year requests for shelter had gone up by 30-40 percent. And one out every four persons requesting shelter had to be turned away. There was no space. Ironically, as the available housing for the poor has beeen cut back, people are staying longer at homeless shelters.

The statistics are hard to come by. It is not easy to draw a scientific, representative sample of a population that may have no fixed location. Nevertheless, here are the best statistics I could compile. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the homeless are families with children; the rest are unattached adults. It is likely that in the course of a year 1.35 million children will experience one or more days of being without a home. Among the adults, approximately 3 out 5 are racial/ethnic minorities. While the stereotype of the homeless person is that of a psychologically disturbed isolated man, the demographics are quite different. One study estimated that psychological issues were the case in only one of five homeless people. Many of those were military veterans suffering from a precipitating disability or post traumatic stress.

The mainstream response has been twofold. One response is to provide just enough assistance so as to avoid scandal and embarrassment. After all, it is not good for the city’s image when substantial numbers of people die of exposure on the street or swelter to death as they did in the Chicago heat wave of a few years ago. This response triggers a makeshift solution by evoking the sympathies of individuals and private charities: Soup kitchens and shelters might truly help if they existed in adequate numbers. But they don’t and won’t.

The larger category of response is quite imaginative and stems from the collaboration of business and city government and that is to make the homeless invisible. One tactic has been to adopt an ordinance that makes it illegal to provide food in public for the homeless. No loitering and no trespassing ordinances have been evoked and sleeping in many public places has been declared a crime. An increasingly popular ploy is to move the shelters and soup kitchens to a location where they can’t really be seen by the public. Out of sight, out of mind.

Over the past three years federal funding for low income housing has been cut by billions of dollars–close to four billion. There is the problem. No serious change in the condition of homelessness can come about until we can provide adequate housing for those without. More than that, we need to provide jobs, a living wage and counseling to those scarred by poverty. Is there any better way to judge a society than by the way it treats its poor?


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