Homing in on homelessness

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Policies for dealing with the homeless in American cities have come and gone, but the question remains: Why can’t officials fix this problem, after decades of trying?

Some cities have tried to provide additional services for their homeless populations while others have cracked down by limiting panhandling or prohibiting overnight sleeping in public areas.

“I would argue that several prior approaches failed,” says Dennis Culhane, professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He points to unsuccessful policies such as arresting the homeless, and to repeated reforms in the shelter system.

With a renewed energy in the fight against chronic homelessness, downtown revitalization projects have encouraged several cities to crack down on panhandling.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has promoted a law that makes it illegal to beg for money near downtown businesses and in tourist spots. Advocates for the homeless are not happy with the policy.

San Francisco has tried various approaches since its homeless population exploded in the 1980s, but the problem only grew.

In 1993, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, a former police chief, activated Matrix, a plan to move the homeless through police action. Next came the 1996 Continuum of Care program, which lasted five years.

Today, San Francisco officials are touting the Care Not Cash initiative, under Mayor Gavin Newsom, which aims to replace cash grants to the homeless with guaranteed mental-health services and housing opportunities.

The programs of the late 1980s and 1990s generally stressed emergency services and shelters, which some researchers see as a failure.

“The early to mid-1990s probably saw a doubling of federal spending on such services, and a near doubling of shelters in the United States, but, alas, shelters don’t cause homelessness, so reforming them or even building more of them doesn’t do anything to reduce homelessness,” Mr. Culhane says. “In fact, perversely, more shelters may only institutionalize the problem.”

The Interagency Council on Homelessness, led by Bush administration czar Philip Mangano, has backed a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. An increase of $200 million has been allocated for homelessness in the 2005 federal budget.

What are cities doing with the money? The latest buzzword is supportive housing: homes that come equipped with a safety net of outreach workers who are on call to help keep them afloat as they work to re-enter society.

“Individuals change before your eyes,” said Janelle Simmons, director of development and communications for the Community Shelter Board in Columbus, Ohio.

Once they have a safe, clean place to live, and they are getting the counseling they need, “they start dressing different, acting different. … They have a sense of pride that they have a home, and they want to maintain a home,” Mrs. Simmons said.

The Christian Science Monitor last year hailed Columbus’ approach as “part of a blueprint for cities fighting homelessness nationwide.”

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