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The Root of Homelessness

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If we have learned anything about homelessness over the past 25 years, it is that public policy based on assumptions, fear, and paranoia about people forced to live on the streets will never create a plan that can work.

All the recent federal plans on homelessness—FEMA emergency shelter plans, HUD Continuum of Care plans (5 years) and the 10-year plans of the Interagency Council on Homelessness—are based on the assumption that in the early 1980s, homelessness re-emerged in America because something was wrong with the people who were becoming homeless.

The federal government required local communities to submit competitive applications for federal largesse, and to show that they could effectively address the “problems of homelessness in America” within the grant amounts allocated. So local governments did just that: they formed committees; created task forces; hired tons of consultants (we should know, many of us served as such); and they wrote grant after grant and plan after plan stating how they were going to address the problem if only the feds would give them the lion’s share of the money.

Plans deemed groundbreaking and effective changed over the years as the “dysfunctional homeless sub-group of the month” changed. But one thing was always constant: The root of the “problem” was blamed on the homeless people, not on the federal government. After all, it was the federal government—not the homeless people—evaluating the proposals.

The federal government pretended—and legions of nonprofits and city agencies applying for federal grants were forced to believe—that the $54 billion dollar reduction in affordable housing funding over the last 25 years could now easily be addressed with life-skills training for homeless single mothers. The federal government promulgated the myth that its tax credits for companies to send blue-collar jobs overseas could be easily offset by having welfare recipients sweep streets and pick up garbage in exchange for below-poverty-level welfare assistance, so that they will value “giving back” to the community.

Imagine this: suppose it wasn’t the federal government evaluating these proposals to address homelessness. Let’s say it was your high school science teacher. The average high school science teacher could, in a few hours, shred the flawed assumptions, half-baked hypotheses, and lack of factual evidence that comprise these weighty and endless volumes of governmental plans.

Therefore, in honor of high school science teachers across America, we present you with some facts to consider the next time you’re wondering, “Where the hell did all these homeless people come from?” Look for the common denominator amongst all these people. If we can identify that, we can begin to make some assumptions and perhaps come up with a hypothesis about the causes of and potential solutions to “the problem” of homelessness.

Our government has formed a flawed hypothesis about homelessness because, from the very outset, it has conveniently turned a blind eye to its own role in drastically cutting federal housing funds. Instead of looking honestly at the factors that created an enormous shortfall of affordable housing, our government has simply jumped to an unscientific prejudgment of homeless people themselves and has set out to “fix” homeless people with counseling and micromanagement instead of addressing the nation’s calamitous housing shortage.

  • Fact one: Compared to 1978, the U.S. government is currently spending nearly 65% less on developing and maintaining affordable housing units for poor people. ($83 billion was appropriated in 1978, while only $29 billion was allocated in 2005.)
  • Fact two: Compared to 1978, the U.S. government currently spends $84 billion more on subsidies for homeownership programs. (It spent $38 billion in 1978 on these subsidies for middle-class and affluent homeowners versus $122 billion in 2005.)
  • Fact three: In 2004, 61% of all federal housing subsidies went to households earning over $54,787 per year, while only 20% of those subsidies went to households earning less than $18,465 annually. The 2004 federal poverty threshold for a household of four with 2 minor children was $19,157.
  • Hypothesis: There is a direct correlation between the fact that, in the late 1970s, the U.S. government made a conscious decision to redirect expenditures for housing from rental assistance for poor people to homeownership and the reemergence of homelessness in America in the early 1980s. When President Reagan “reinvented government” by drastically slashing assistance to the poorest of the poor, he played a major role in reinventing homelessness so that it re-emerged in modern America.

If our federally mandated housing and homelessness plans (FEMA, HUD and ICH) and our locally politicized campaigns had been focused on addressing “what created this mess,” the ludicrous current attempts to fill a $54 billion housing hole with a mere $1.37 billion of annual homelessness assistance funding would have drawn ridicule long ago.

How many life skills training courses would a homeless person need to take to compensate for the fact that, in the 20 years from 1983 to 2002, the U.S. government built 500,000 FEWER units of affordable housing than it did in the 7 years from 1976-1982? How many money management classes must a rural parent take to compensate for the 35,000 FEWER units being built in rural America each year?

Are money management classes and life skills training good things? Sure, why not? Is a lack of money management classes and life skills training the cause of a re-emergence of homelessness? Doubtful. Will money management and life skills training—or case management, or more outreach, or the repressive policing of homeless people for sleeping and living on our streets—ever create enough housing to make up for a $54 billion cutback from the federal government? Hell no.

If we want to address homelessness in America, we need to stop looking at “them” and start looking at us. If we believe our government represents us, it’s we, the people, who must force the federal government to create justice. What did we (the U.S.) do to contribute to this problem and what can we (the U.S.) do to address it? Acting in our name, the U.S. government has chosen to redirect our housing subsidies to homeownership; the real estate industry receives over $120 billion dollars a year towards this goal. Acting in our name, the U.S. government has chosen to cut $54 billion from housing assistance programs for poor people. We (as citizens of the U.S.) KNOW that 1.3 million children experienced homelessness in 2003.

Look at the information we present to you. Not only do the facts invalidate the current housing “plan” of the federal government, they invalidate their underlying hypothesis. A group of us— Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)— have gathered documented data from the U.S. government about its housing policies. We have converted this information, facts if you will, into easily understandable charts. Charts can give the same information in a direct visual way that more people can digest and understand. They also do a hell of a good job at cutting through the lies and misinformation of politicians and showing the real trends in our nation’s housing policies.

The charts show that when this nation first abandoned its commitment to funding federal housing programs, it abandoned millions of homeless people with the same stroke. Abandoned federal housing programs led directly to millions of abandoned, impoverished Americans languishing without housing in cities across the nation. Something else that is just as precious to our national identity has also been abandoned: the very spirit of human rights has been left by the wayside to die of the same neglect and callous disregard. San Francisco artist Art Hazelwood created an unforgettable image for WRAP, “From Reagan to Bush: For Twenty-Five years, A Spirit of Abandon,” that graphically shows how savage cutbacks in federal housing led to the cruel specter of countless Americans living on harsh and unforgiving streets.

Trends tend to reflect priorities and, after three years of studying these trends, we at WRAP feel it is the right time for us to make a hypothesis. Our educated guess, or hypothesis, is that an equal distribution of housing subsidies from the federal government will have a dramatic impact on alleviating homelessness in America. We also have a related hypothesis: that an honest evaluation of corporate welfare vs. citizen’s welfare will show that our government urgently needs to balance out who is getting government help before our government decides who needs life skills training. We, the people, must stay focused, not on promoting the corporate “bottom line,” but on promoting “the common welfare,” as it says in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP, a collaboration of six community organizations in CA, OR, and WA) and the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH) plan to have a full report based upon this and other data by the end of April.

WRAP can be contacted by email at wrapsf@yahoo.com, or at 2940 16th Street, Ste. 200-2, San Francisco, CA, 94103.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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