[Hpn] We CAN Afford to House Homeless People in MA & USA / Kuttner
Mon, 25 Dec 2000 16:36:33 -0800 (PST)
FWD Boston Globe - Sunday, December 24, 2000
WE CAN EASILY AFFORD TO HELP OUT THE HOMELESS
by Robert Kuttner
THIS IS A good season to consider the scandal of homelessness amid plenty
as we remember the birthday of an infant born homeless.
Thirty years ago, Americans did not use the word ''homeless.'' Millions of
people were ill-housed, but except for the occasional skid row derelict,
hardly anybody literally lived in the street.
Homelessness, as we understand it today, came from five sources: the
closing of state hospitals for the mentally ill; the increase in drug and
alcohol abuse; wives and children taking flight from abusive husbands or
boyfriends; a street culture of runaway teenagers; and increasingly
unaffordable housing costs for the poor.
While the casual observer may see a single subculture of the homeless,
there are really several different kinds of homeless people. But each has a
social cause - and a social remedy that our society could easily afford.
The largest single group of homeless is the mentally ill.
The tragedy is that 30 years after deinstitutionalization, there are
well-established strategies for providing decent housing and noncoercive
care to the mentally handicapped.
Here in Boston, the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance pioneered a
strategy called the Special Initiative that combines permanent subsidized
small-group or individual housing with support services and
case-management. Thanks to this approach, which was launched in 1991, 1,200
of the state's estimated 2,000 mentally ill homeless now have decent
housing. The support services are necessary so people stay on medication,
avoid crises, and begin to live ordered and stable lives. Often they become
able to take paying jobs.
This initiative, a national model, has an 83 percent success rate, and it
is surprisingly cheap. It costs only $3 million of state money to house and
support another 200 mentally ill homeless people. In other words, for $12
million more the problem in Massachusetts would be solved.
Although this initiative was embraced by William Weld, the former
Republican governor, his successor has been surprisingly unsympathetic.
This past year the governor's budget included no money for the homeless
mentally ill. The state Legislature added a million dollars. With next
year's budget due in mid-January, Governor Cellucci is still considering
whether to support any additional funding.
Nationally the picture is even less defensible.
Community living for people with disabilities of various kinds works; it is
far more cost-effective than institutionalizing people who cherish their
freedom, and far more humane than leaving them to push their worldly
possessions in shopping carts and sleep on heating grates. Yet nationally,
the public funding for community living initiatives has eroded dramatically
in recent decades.
Side by side with the crisis of homelessness for the mentally ill is a
shortage of housing for victims of abuse and for ordinary people of modest
income who cannot afford spiraling rents. In the years after World War II,
the economy boomed but housing stayed affordable because government
subsidized its construction in a variety of ways.
In the 1990s, however, government essentially stopped adding new units of
subsidized housing to the nation's housing stock. Especially in booming
metropolitan areas, supply and demand took over and pushed rentals to
unimagined levels. In this game of musical chairs, some people doubled up
and some simply got pushed onto the street.
As I write, both political parties are debating what to do with an
unprecedented federal budget surplus. Most Republicans want to spend much
of the surplus on a tax cut. Most Democrats want to use it to pay off the
Both miss the point.
Looked at through a green eyeshade, the budget surplus is a mark of fiscal
rectitude. But looked at with even a shred of humanity, the surplus is a
national disgrace. It reflects money wrung out of budgets for needy people.
In times like these, we should be spending some of this money so people can
literally afford a roof over their heads.
In 30 years, our national income has nearly doubled, but more people are
homeless today than in 1970. Indeed, 2,000 years after the birth of Christ
in a manger shamed and awed onlookers, some people don't even have the
shelter of a manger.
Kip Tiernan, the remarkable founder of Rosie's Place, the Boston shelter
for homeless women and children, likes to say that the proliferation of
shelters is not a success but a sign of failure. At this Christmas season,
please remember the needy, but let's remember, too, that individual charity
is no substitute for sensible and humane national action.
[Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears
regularly in the Globe.]
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
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