Monday, July 23, 2012

Must we always have "the homeless" among us?

homeless woman.jpg
Charley James reports that the powers-that-be have finally understood the solution to "homelessness." I put the label in quotes because I remember a time in this country when we didn't expect that our cities and towns would have a permanent population of people who didn't have a stable roof over their heads. We called the few such people we saw "transients," or "beggars" or maybe "bums" -- but we thought of their condition as a short term state, uncommon, something of a throwback to a poorer, harsher time.

That ended in the early 1980s when the Federal Reserve created a sharp recession to curb inflation just as Ronald Reagan's administration pressed forward the long Republican war on provision for the poor. Suddenly San Francisco had beggars on the street who weren't young hippies, but "the homeless." Under Dianne Feinstein -- our mayor 1978-88 -- we began to see the billboards touting the "Mayor's Fund for the Homeless." A new category of persons, slightly subhuman, had been defined and the numbers of homeless people continued to grow.

Now, apparently, there is interest in a new path.

“The thing we finally figured out is that it’s … cheaper to solve homelessness than it is to put a band-aid on it,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told Jon Stewart when he appeared on The Daily Show in March. “It costs (government) about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets.” That works out to roughly $110 a night, or more expensive than staying in a budget motel along the interstate.

…Right now, agencies at all levels of government combined are spending as much “to maintain a cot in a gymnasium with 100 other cots as it would cost to rent an efficiency apartment,” says Dennis Culhane, who studies homelessness and housing policies at the University of Pennsylvania. “We are paying for a form of housing that is largely substandard, and we are paying as much, if not more, than standard conventional housing.”

A HUD study backs up Culhane’s assertion. It finds that the cost savings of moving people into permanent housing would be astounding.

For example, putting a family of four in a Houston shelter costs nearly $1,400 a month while the market rate for a two bedroom apartment in the city is only $743. In Greenville, North Carolina – a much smaller city – the price tag for a shelter is $2,269, while rent for a two bedroom flat is just under $600 per month.

Maybe saving money can persuade elites to devote urban real estate to cheap housing. President Obama plans to introduce legislation that would push for this. Of course if it has to get through a Republican Congress, the prognosis isn't good.

You can read the rest of Charley Jame's article here. Apparently he is writing a book based on his own experience of being without a home.

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