It’s time to end homelessness

By Alan Bean

Nobody is a fan of homelessness, but we’ve learned to live with it.  We are most adept at living with it.

I will never forget my first encounter with homelessness.  I was visiting Washington DC with my wife and three children in the late 1980s.  We were walking through a park en route to the Mall and the kids were amusing themselves with a game of hide and seek.  As my daughter Lydia searched for her brother Adam, she happened upon a large square piece of opaque plastic lying on the grass.  Thinking her brother might hiding under there, she lifted up the plastic sheet and discovered an old man fast asleep.  He had obviously spent the night sleeping in the park.

I had spent most of the early 1980s in Canada or in isolated places like Glenrock, Wyoming, so I had no idea what was going on.  I rememb.ered speaking to a weeping nun in Louisville Kentucky when I worked as a social worker at a mental hospital.  She told me that federal funding for mental health services was being cut back and soon there would be nowhere for people to go but to the streets.  The woman was inconsolable with grief.  This was in 1980, before Ronald Reagan had worked his magic on the safety net.

As I looked down at the sleeping old man under the plastic in a Washington park, I realized what the sister was talking about.  Frankly, I was horrified.  I was also embarrassed to be living in a country that tolerated such horrors.

But I got used to it.

A quarter century later, a problem created by misguided public policy continues because we lack the will to change course.  Many churches have developed ministries to the homeless that keep these unfortunates supplied with food and clothing.  Night shelters have popped up across the country. Social workers provide a host of services to this population. Hospital emergency rooms provide incredibly expensive medical care when the homeless population requires assistance.  But there has been no concerted effort to end the scourge of homelessness.

Actually, that’s not strictly true.  Federal HUD funds are only given to agencies committed to ending chronic homelessness by 2015 and family homelessness by 2020.  But with little or no funding behind the effort, these target dates are sure to be kicked down the road.  The goal was for ending chronic homelessness was 2012, and will soon be bumped back to 2016.

I have been educating myself about the fight to end homelessness in Fort Worth.  Plenty of wonderful people are engaged in this noble cause, but every year it appears there is less political will behind the effort.  Everyone agrees that ending homelessness is a worthy aspiration, but nobody wants low cost housing, especially for those living below 30% of the poverty line, built in their neighborhood.

It is painfully difficult to get mayors and city councils to get serious about building low cost housing.  Unless we sweeten the pot for contractors, low cost housing won’t be built, and that means injecting millions of dollars into the system.  Without political cover, elected officials won’t cast the needed votes.

This week, two pointed opinion pieces appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; an editorial demanding that local politicians get serious about building low-cost housing, and a pointed op-ed from Jason Hall debunking the myth that lack of coordination between cooperating agencies is the big problem.  Money is the big problem, Mr. Hall says.

I attended a community conversation on homelessness earlier this week and was impressed by the hardworking and dedicated men and women who provide services to the homeless population.  Ending homelessness, I learned, would actually save the city money.  It is terribly expensive to service a population that lives on the streets.  Emergency room and inpatient care for these folks costs the city of Fort Worth almost $10 million every year–that’s almost as much money as HUD gives the network of agencies tasked to fight homelessness on an annual basis.

I also learned that homeless people live, on average, 29 years less than people with adequate housing.  Often care is given on the basis of a simple triage question: which applicants are most likely to die without assistance?

This cannot stand.

You can find the editorial here and Mr. Hall’s op-ed here.

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