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A Simple Way To Help The Millions Soon To Be Homeless

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

There's a relatively simple way you, your friends and neighbors can alleviate years of the needless hardship and pain that Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and thenSenate's Radical Republicans are about unleash.

Legions of Americans have been left broke by the coronavirus pandemic and government bungling or intentional malfeasance. Or worse…plain meanness.

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The Streets Cannot Be A Home

The homeless can be scary people. They may block sidewalks, curse passers-by and aggressively demand money. Or they can be just sad.

Growing homeless encampments are stressing cities across the country. Honolulu and Sarasota responded with stiff laws taking “vagrants” off the streets and out of public parks. South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, decided to give the homeless three choices. They can go to a shelter, get arrested or leave town.

Several approaches to dealing with this tough population are being tried. The wisest combine humane treatment with respect for the public’s right to use public space without having to step around bodies.

Some “advocates” oppose forcing the homeless off the streets. They accuse the new laws of “criminalizing homelessness” and trying to “hide poverty.”

What the advocates are doing, though, is turning the homeless into spectacle. Many are mentally ill, are addicted or have criminal records. They are not street theater.

One can’t ignore the reality that rising costs in hot housing markets have priced many locals out of their rentals. But as suggested above, the inability to find other accommodations is usually part of a larger constellation of personal problems.

Enlightened advocates applaud removing the homeless from the streets as a means of directing them to the services they need. Governments have an obligation to support such services.

An example. While recently waiting in a line at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, I was hit by a harsh smell. Standing next to me was a disheveled man smiling sweetly. A social worker came by. She gently asked him whether he’d like to go with her and get cleaned up. He nodded, and they left together.

Of course, many of the homeless are far less docile. The infamous Jungle encampment in Seattle has become a scene of violence and other social mayhem. Law enforcement dreads going there.

That the homeless often prefer to live on the streets, as opposed to shelters, is not a reason to let them. Their objections range from hatred of rules to the inconvenience of being sent away every morning.

San Francisco has developed an interesting program to address some flaws in the shelter system. It created the Navigation Center as a kind of halfway house between a shelter and permanent housing. The “guests” can keep pets, store possessions and take showers. Case managers try to transition the residents into permanent housing while connecting them with health services, driver’s licenses and food stamps.

The Navigation Center has not been the perfect solution to the enormous challenge. Because its residents have been allowed to cut in line for permanent subsidized housing, the center has become wildly popular. The waiting list for admission is very long, and the most vulnerable people have the hardest time pushing their way in.

But this is how the homeless should be treated — with dignity and care but direction. Letting obviously dysfunctional humans live in their filth as a nod to some civil right is perverse. The Navigation Center concept is now being tried in Seattle, in New York and elsewhere.

There’s no point turning this into a class issue. Gentrification creates its own dislocations, for sure. But bringing jobs and tax dollars to downtowns with public transportation can’t help but provide a net benefit to those hurting economically.

For decades, urban neglect has left the poor isolated in rotting inner cities. Healthy city centers make the economic mainstream far more accessible to city dwellers.

Letting clusters — or virtual armies — of homeless people degrade the quality of civic life clearly serves no one. Fortunately, this is a problem that money can go a long way toward fixing. And that money must be found.

 

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo: A homeless man sits on 42nd Street in the Manhattan borough of New York, January 4, 2016.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Francis Prods Congress’ Conscience

Wouldn’t it be grand if Pope Francis could be a recurring visitor to the U.S. Congress, a sort of spiritual superintendent who occasionally drops in to chide, cajole, and mostly just remind our legislators when their actions don’t promote the common good? What kind of country would we become?

Watching as the pontiff stepped away from the podium after his electrifying speech to Congress, I wanted the effect to stick. I wanted to see Democrats and Republicans get off their high horses and cooperate on restoring the health and prosperity of the nation. I wanted our elected officials to stop acting merely as the “political class” and instead legislate as men and women of conscience.

I know I’m not alone. A lot of reasonable people in this country wish the pope’s short visit would usher in such an era.

But with his visit to Capitol Hill complete, the pope drove off in his little Fiat, en route to greet the people nearest his heart: the poor and homeless. At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, he spoke to and looked in the faces of the least among us at a Catholic Charities free lunch for more than 200. It was a sharp contrast to his prior errand. And yet there is a role for government at this table, too.

“Why are we homeless?” Francis asked. “Why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask daily.”

Then, he added, “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”

Is that clear enough for you? There is no justification whatsoever, and yet homelessness persists — thrives, actually — in this rich and powerful nation. Why?

Unwind the life of virtually any homeless man, woman or child and you may see personal failure or family failure. More likely you will see challenges that people can’t handle by themselves: mental illness, domestic violence, catastrophic job loss, poverty. No one sets out in life wanting to be homeless. No one should be trapped in homelessness, even as a consequence of poor choices.

That they continue to be is an indictment of a society that sanctions discarding — a word Francis often uses — those it finds inconvenient.

It’s also a failure of government. Just as you can track the problems along a person’s road to homelessness, you can track policy maker’s failure — or is it refusal? — to respond. The story of homelessness is a story of policy failure: shortfalls in vision and funding of public education, investment in neighborhoods, job training, access to healthcare (especially mental), affordable treatment for addictions of alcohol and drugs, and treatment for PTSD-afflicted veterans after they fight our wars.

Those are all issues that Congress has an impact on, for better or worse.

The pope’s arrival in the U.S. overshadowed a national headline on homelessness out of Los Angeles. City leaders declared a “state of emergency” because the number of homeless people setting up encampments has grown to an estimated 26,000.

In other words, the homeless have become too numerous to ignore.

So an announcement was made that $100 million would be shoveled at programs, which not surprisingly have yet to be FULLY outlined. That’s because there are no easy answers.

The skyrocketing costs of housing, and the lack of affordable options, are significant factors in why homelessness has grown by 12 percent in Los Angeles in the past two years. But affordable housing is an issue in virtually every American city.

The uneven way the economy is recovering from the recession is another complicating factor. Congress and the president approved bailouts and other deals for some, but that didn’t benefit everyone in the long run. How the U.S. rebuilds its economy will determine who and how many land on our streets in the future.

A central moral teaching of virtually every faith is the responsibility to feed the poor. Yet charity alone is not a solution. We have an obligation as a society, through the policies of our governments, to create the conditions and opportunities for all to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families.

Any honest assessment of homelessness apportions blame and responsibility in many directions. Like the stalemates of Congress, homelessness didn’t begin recently, and it continues through inaction or misdirected action from many, many quarters.

Day by day, struggle by struggle, people fall into being homeless through their own faults and from circumstances they did not create.

There but for the grace of God goes each of us.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

Photo: Pope Francis blesses a schoolchild upon departure from the Vatican Embassy in Washington on the third day of his first visit to the United States on September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

The Urgent National Crisis That Presidential Candidates Aren’t Talking About

It’s visible on the streets of most major U.S. cities, has been for decades, and costs the government billions of dollars a year. But none of the people running for president seem to be speaking about it. Politicians and pundits don’t talk about homelessness like they talk about Donald Trump’s insults or Hillary Clinton’s emails.

The Obama administration prioritized veterans, one group within the U.S. homeless population, in its plan to end chronic homelessness nationally by 2017. In August, federal and Connecticut officials announced that the state had become the first to do so among U.S. veterans.

With 14 months to go until the 2016 presidential election, candidates are regularly referring to the United States’ dwindling middle class and income and wealth inequality, while others continue to rail against the financial elite and the 1 percent. But few are speaking explicitly on the campaign trail about perhaps the most jarring manifestation of poverty.

“A few candidates have talked about the distribution of wealth and the need to grow the middle class, but homelessness is as invisible in these discussions as it is visible on the streets,” Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, told The National Memo.

Nearly 580,000 people experience homelessness in the United States on any given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But with only 18.3 per 10,000 Americans in the general population directly affected, the issue is off the radar for most people — including candidates.

Advocates said that they did not expect homelessness to become a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential race, but they do see hope in the fact that some candidates are talking about economic inequality.

Part of the reason homelessness is absent from the national conversation is that many think of it as a local issue, one that mayors can campaign on, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Americans, he added, don’t usually think of the president as the elected official responsible for getting people into housing.

Even so, advocates have suggested, the progress made in some U.S. cities and Connecticut on chronic veterans’ homelessness could be a politically viable way to present the issue to American voters.

As more cities report that they’ve ended that situation, Berg said it could get more public exposure as a social problem that can be solved. “Some candidate is going to figure out that this is an opportunity to get him or herself associated with something really good. Maybe,” he added.

William Burnett, a board member of the advocacy organization Picture the Homeless, and a formerly homeless veteran living in New York City, said he got housing in March due to his status as a veteran.

“It’s easier to sell the political will to address veteran homelessness than it is to address the homelessness of other people,” Burnett told The National Memo. He said he appreciated the fact that he was able to get housing, but said people who hadn’t served in the military also need help.

“I would like to see some of these candidates addressing [homelessness] during the campaign process,” added Burnett, who volunteered for Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003. Policy makers and candidates, Burnett said, should listen to those with the most expertise on homelessness — currently and formerly homeless people — in order to come up with creative solutions to get people housed.

Homelessness is “a national nexus for so many other issues that candidates talk about,” said Jake Maguire, a spokesperson at Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities address homelessness. He cited income inequality, jobs, and affordable housing, among other social and economic issues related to homelessness.

The Obama administration put a spotlight on the issue of veteran homelessness, Maguire said. Now, it can be “an entry point” to politicians speaking about addressing homelessness more broadly.

National Problem, Local Success

In New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, on August 27, President Obama touted the progress the city has made in “fighting poverty” and “supporting our homeless veterans.”

“New Orleans has become a model for the nation as … the first major city to end veterans’ homelessness, which is a remarkable achievement,” the president said.

In addition to Connecticut and New Orleans, cities including Phoenix and Salt Lake City announced that they have eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans, and Houston reported in June that the city has effectively housed all of its homeless vets.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronic homelessness “as an individual or family with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”

Even though a small minority of Americans experiences homelessness firsthand, advocates say it’s a social issue voters should care about because their tax dollars fund the government programs aimed at addressing homelessness, whether they’re effective or not.

Between shelter costs, emergency room visits, mental health services, drug treatment, Medicaid, food stamps, and other benefits, it costs the government between $35,000 and $150,000 per year for one person living on the streets. And ultimately, the people receiving these benefits do not get the one they really need: a place to live.

“We as taxpayers spend [on average] 40 percent more to keep people homeless than to house them,” Maguire said. Annual per-person savings for cities that choose to offer homeless people housing vary by location, from $54,086 in Jacksonville, Florida, to $46,900 in Los Angeles, to $15,772 in Denver.

Burnett also said it costs more to keep a homeless person on the streets, than to pay for their housing. “If you want to bring the budget down, let’s find a cheaper way.”

Some cities, including Salt Lake City, have found so-called “housing first” strategies to be both ethical and cost-effective in transitioning people from shelters or the streets to their own housing.

While some taxpayers may question why they should pay for someone else’s housing, and argue that homeless people are without shelter because of drug or alcohol abuse, not wanting to work or some other personal choice, the reality is that many people are homeless due to a lack of affordable housing and poverty.

In addition, Maguire said, “housing is actually the platform of stability” from which people can gain access to drug treatment programs, job training, and mental health care.

Other advocates agreed: It’s hard to maintain a job when you are sleeping on the streets.

On The Streets, Off The Campaign Trail

As far as political constituencies go, homeless people don’t have the loudest voice. Most people without shelter are likely not donating to any candidates’ campaigns, and certainly not to Super PACs. Furthermore, the homeless experience unique barriers to exercising their right to vote. Without a mailing address, it may be difficult to receive your voter registration card or information about your polling site.

So while 2016 candidates are talking about income and wealth inequality, creating jobs, raising the minimum wage, developing more affordable housing, and providing greater access to health care, they have only discussed homelessness indirectly or in passing, if at all.

The advocates interviewed for this piece mentioned Bernie Sanders as the candidate most likely to speak about homelessness on the campaign trail.

Back in March, on a visit to San Francisco before he had declared his candidacy, Sanders said the city deserved credit for “consistently being one of the most progressive cities in the United States.” But the Vermont senator said the homelessness that is evident on the streets of San Francisco was emblematic of “a systemic failure being ignored by both political leadership and media,” according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

“I know this has been a long-term problem in this great city, but what is hard for many Americans to deal with is the fact that we were led to believe we were a vibrant democracy — but in many ways we are moving to an oligarchic society,” Sanders said. “Ninety-nine percent of all new income today generated is going to the top 1 percent. Does that sound anything vaguely resembling the kind of society we want to be living in?”

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s campaign told The National Memo he has addressed homelessness on the campaign trail, and while he served as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. While campaigning in Iowa on July 4, candidates were asked by The Des Moines Register how they best demonstrated patriotism in their lives. O’Malley said his patriotism was shown in “the form of service to others — especially the most vulnerable and voiceless among us: the poor, the sick, the homeless, the hungry and the imprisoned.”

In June, O’Malley discussed the need for a more coordinated strategy to promote affordable housing, mental and physical health care, addiction treatment, and “putting housing first” in order to address homelessness, according to O’Malley’s campaign.

The campaigns of Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson did not respond to an email asking whether they planned to discuss homelessness, or had a policy plan to address homelessness nationally. The campaigns of Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also did not respond to requests for comment.

One reason candidates rarely talk about poverty and homelessness specifically, the California Homeless Youth Project’s Hyatt said, is simple: Financial struggles are often foreign to them.

“Unfortunately, people who tend to run for public office have grown up middle class or better, and are therefore out of touch with the urgent crisis of homelessness in our country.”

Photo: Homeless people sleeping in Washington Square Park in New York City, (Kevin Christopher Burke via Flickr)