Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Three-quarters of a million Americas are homeless, according to a first-ever Annual Homeless Assessment Report by HUD. (Seeing news that is less than upbeat is in itself a surprise to see at the top of a government website.) This total (which is greater than that of the city of Boston) includes people living on the street, in emergency shelters, and in transitional housing. The number also roughly matches previous estimates.
The report is discouraging, coming as it does about two decades after the problem of “homeless” first became an issue of national attention (as the term and attitude concerning “bums” receded). But it is also a good point for reflection. The polarized rhetoric of the 1980s –- that homelessness was largely the “fault” either of Ronald Reagan’s cold capitalist polices or of the misguided emptying of mental institutions –- has largely passed. Without pointing fingers, what approaches are the best for alleviating homelessness in the new century?
Portland, Ore., reports a significant drop in its homeless population over the past few years, which some attribute to a change in emphasis away from proving emergency shelters (which can often be less palatable than a sleeping bag in a doorway) to helping the transition to low-cost permanent housing. This certainly seems like the best solution, but it requires a committed effort by private organizations or the government or both, which not all cities hold. Such efforts also are less likely to house those homeless people with severe social disorders.
Passing the large “tent city” under Interstate 275 in nearby St. Petersburg, Fla., I remain convinced that there is a role for the direct provision of non-market housing to the most helpless of homeless people. Instead of allowing the unstable and unsatisfactory tent city under the interstate, couldn’t the government fund construction (in some area with few complaining existing residents, such as under the freeway) for very low-cost housing? The facility could hold simple rooms, single beds, and shared sanitary facilities, as a form of housing that would be better than the typical emergency shelter, but less expensive than market-rate housing. Such housing would not be ideal, but it could be humane. Call me naïve, but tent cities should not have to exist in the United States of America in 2007.