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Rude Awakenings: What the Homeless Crisis Tells Us.

One of the remarkable things about this year's presidential race was the absence of the poor. God knows there are plenty of them--almost 36 million by the government's last count, 4 million more than when George Bush took office. Nearly one of every four children in America now falls below the poverty line, which is pretty far to fall. So where, during the election, did they all go? The candidates spoke about America as if it is one big, struggling middle class, where everyone (but the rich) combats equal odds--all Cincinnati and no South Central.

Among the seemingly banned words was "homeless." You remember them--the men who smell bad, act crazy, sleep on park benches, demand your spare change; the women and children cycling through dismal welfare hotels. Does anyone know what the candidates proposed to do about them? Homelessness in America is now so thoroughly accepted that it doesn't even prompt cheap campaign promises.

Where candidates have been silent, authors have been prolific, and there is now a sizeable, though mostly obscure, technical literature about the homeless that addresses everything from theories about how to count them to estimates of their caloric intake. Earlier this year, two books were added to the list.

On the surface, they seem like they couldn't possibly disagree more. Writing from the left, Joel Blau describes contemporary homelessness as the latest in a series of economic upheavals, inherent in capitalism, that have periodically tossed Americans from jobs and homes since the Industrial Revolution. "Modern homelessness is, to a great extent, a product of the transformation of the U.S. economy," he writes. Blau, a professor of social work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, acknowledges that substantial numbers of homeless people suffer from mental illness, alcoholism, or drug addiction. But he warns that such problems can be the consequences, and not just the causes, of homelessness. And he clearly does not like to dwell on unflattering behavior. To do so, he warns, would imply that the homeless "are not like you and me."

It is just this kind of argument that enrages Richard W. White Jr., a former antipoverty planner in LBJ's Office of Economic Opportunity who seems to have traveled the road to neoconservatism. What upsets him most isn't homelessness, but the advocates who try to "make the homeless seem |just like you and me.'" White argues that mental illness and addiction are not only central but underreported, and that the homeless are an even motlier lot than most people presume. He is especially incensed at Mitch Snyder, the late street guerrilla of the homeless movement, and Bob Hayes, formerly its chief legal advocate. He calls them cynical liars who heap unfair criticism upon the American system and rend the political culture with their tactics. He goes so far as to argue that, "We may have more lying than we have injustice."

The notion that these books have anything in common might horrify both authors. But that is the most surprising and important thing about them: For

all their apparent mutual animosity, they tell a similar--or, at least a reconcilable--story. Clearly White (and most conservatives) thinks that the homeless are more responsible for their condition than does Blau (and most liberals). But both authors also think that the transformation to a post-industrial economy is part of the story, because it has driven down the wages of unskilled laborers. Both argue that the erosion of public benefits has played a role. (The average welfare mother with two children gets 42 percent less cash assistance now than she did two decades ago.) Both recognize that the family has fragmented, leaving more people living alone, with no one to rescue them during crises. Both authors are struck by the fact that modern homelessness emerged not during an economic downturn but during a period of general prosperity. There's even some modest agreement on the endlessly divisive question of numbers. Blau estimates 735,000 Americans are homeless on a given night, and calls it evidence that something in America is "profoundly wrong." White argues for "a maximum" of 600,000 in a given week, but cautions that this is "not, per se, a true crisis."

The agreements continue: Each book discusses the de-institutionalization of mental patients, and both view it as a disaster. No one can read either book and fail to understand that drugs and alcohol play leading roles in many journeys to the streets. And most interesting of all, both books stress the devastation of the low-income housing market.

Of all the causes of homelessness, this may remain the one that's least understood by the public. Put simply, two decades ago there were more cheap apartments than poor people, but now needy households outnumber cheap apartments by about two to one. White spends many chapters arguing that housing alone is not the problem, but then arrives at a conclusion that seems to take him by surprise: "I must acknowledge that lack of appropriate housing nevertheless is an important contributory factor."

Blau and White could probably spend the rest of their lives together on a deserted island without ever agreeing whether the homeless "are just like you and me." But they do seem to agree that the homeless are a particularly vulnerable lot being pushed onto the streets both by personal problems and the larger economic forces imperiling tens of millions of other poor people.

Spare change

Part of the reason the authors can disagree so stridently while telling compatible stories is that homelessness rarely has a single cause. So where one person can abstract economic forces as the villain, another can see personal pathology. Martha Burt, a researcher at the Urban Institute, illustrated the way multiple causes of homelessness allow for conflicting interpretations in her book Over the Edge, also published earlier this year. It is unfortunate that the examples she offers are fictional ones, but until there is better actual reporting they will have to do:

Joe is a white man in his forties, who does occasional

day labor in the skid rows of several

southern cities, among which he moves. He had

many years of stable employment in a Midwestern

factory job. During that time he married, had

three children, supported his family, and drank a

lot. He had no trouble maintaining his job until

the factory closed. Other factories in his city

also closed, leaving many out of work. His

drinking increased, and after a futile search for

work locally, he left town to look for work. He

returned home every few months for the first

year, but has not been home now for three years.

He earns whatever money he spends, sleeps in

cheap hotels when he can afford it and in shelters

when he can't, eats at soup kitchens, and

continues drinking.

Latoya is a woman in her late twenties, with

three children. Her oldest child was left with relatives

so he could attend school. Her two

preschoolers live with her. She has never been

married, and lived with her mother until she became

pregnant with her third child. Thereafter

she stayed with relatives or boyfriends, but has

never had primary responsibility for paying her

own rent, because she never had enough money

to do so. She is a high school dropout and has

never worked. She left her last boyfriend (the

father of the third child) because he persistently

abused her physically. She does not have

enough money to pay rent for her own apartment

although she receives welfare. She is psychologically


My own instincts here are a bit more doubting: Joe may have collected a few pink slips even during better times, and Latoya's problems might include drugs. But take them at face value. Liberals can argue that this is a story of economic collapse--Joe has been thrown from work, and perhaps Latoya's boyfriends have, too. Because lots of alcoholics happen to live in fancy homes, Blau might argue, what sets Joe apart isn't his drinking but his poverty.

Conservatives can make hay with the same facts. Joe could earn more if he drank less and Latoya should have devoted her youth to books, not babies. Because lots of disadvantaged people have overcome hard times with hard work, White might argue, what sets Joe and Latoya apart is their character, not their external oppression. My guess is that Blau and White would agree on at least one thing: that 20 years ago, the world was more forgiving--with more jobs for Joe, higher benefits for Latoya, and cheaper apartments for both.

Both of these books offer moments of insight, but readers of The Washington Monthly are unlikely to find either of them satisfying. Both suffer from the absence of real, flesh-and-blood homeless people. And both work too hard to accommodate their ideology, giving them a tendentious feel at times as the authors work overtime to explain away inconvenient facts. I left a trail of exclamation points as I read, filling the margins with "Yes! and "No!" on alternating pages. "Yes!" when White spots how unions of mental health workers sometimes promote their own interests over those of their patients, "No!" when he convinces himself that reporters and activists are part of a cultural elite trying to put down American values. I suspect much of what is written about homelessness leaves many people feeling that way. It rarely seems to be telling the whole story.

The strengths and weaknesses of the two books are those of the left and right more generally. Blau sometimes writes with an annoyingly conspiratorial tone, as if the worldwide economic changes were plotted out by David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger over sherry in the Chase Manhattan boardroom. "Business sought to regain its competitiveness, but it did so by lowering everyone else's standard of living," he writes. Perhaps he even hears his own echo, because he warns at one point that "it would be far too conspiratorial to see any conscious plan" in the fate of the homeless. He also seems wedded to the zero-sum notion that if the rich gain, the poor must correspondingly suffer.

But if Blau sometimes seems too unwilling to confront the pathologies among the homeless, and too sanguine about the ability of vague "social services" to fix them, he performs an important service by pointing out the macro changes, such as those in the economy and the housing market. It's true that the homeless often behave irresponsibly, but Blau is right to insist that we look elsewhere as well. Either serious changes are occurring in the housing and labor markets, he writes, or "for some mysterious reason, a sizeable group of citizens suddenly became irresponsible at the very same time."

The problem with White's book is that he is obsessed with the provocative tactics of a few national leaders. Yes, Mitch Snyder wildly overestimated the number of homeless people, and underestimated their problems. (He also exhibited great personal courage and inspired thousands of people to do something about homelessness.) Like some other neoconservatives, White gets so distracted by periodic lefty goofiness that he forgets the underlying problem--to use his terms, he's more passionate about those who "lie" about in injustice than those who suffer it. His disdain for the advocates causes him to lapse, every 10 pages or so, into a kind of prissy civics lesson. "Society does not work when it is run on an adversary basis," he lectures. He calls for advocates to adhere to "enduring civilized values."

That said, I wound up liking White--sort of despite himself. His book can be read as the battle of an open mind against a jerking knee, and there are some interesting results. "My visceral response was that homelessness was a manufactured crisis," he said. But after doing his research, he finds "I have moved toward the center" concluding that "even some increases in appropriations are warranted."

White has acquired a seemingly good sense of the con games on the streets. He understands that families in New York will make themselves homeless in order to move to the head of the public housing waiting list; that street alcoholics will use the offer of a shelter bed to free up extra money for drinking. At the same time, he is refreshingly skeptical about vague calls, like Blau's, for more "social services," and raises serious questions about the efficacy of drug and alcohol treatment programs. He makes the politically incorrect, but intriguing, point that what may be the best alcohol treatment program ever devised, Alcoholics Anonymous, operates without a cent of public money. He looks for causes of homelessness in some of the less-obvious places, like exclusionary zoning laws that drive up the cost of housing, and the state legislators who sometimes keep open inefficient mental hospitals to protect local jobs when money would be better spent elsewhere. He takes a nice swing at Ronald Reagan for his mean purge of the disability rolls, which disqualified hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people simply for administrative reasons. White concludes that the "thoughtless action unquestionably increased the numbers of homeless, perhaps by many thousands." There's one other interesting factoid buried in this book: the history of the term "skid row," which White traces to the logging district in old Seattle, where logs once traveled down along "skid road."

Helter shelter

In the decade-long debate over homelessness, no topic is more controversial than Bob Hayes' famous statement that the solution can be found in three words: "housing, housing, housing." White argues, with reason, that apartments alone will do little for addicts who turn them into crack dens or schizophrenics who leave to wander the streets. He is so addled by Hayes' slogan that he mockingly appropriates the quote to label one of his chapters.

So his pseudo-confession, midway through the book, that "housing nevertheless is an important contributory factor," carries major importance. "Housing that is acceptable to economically marginal families and individuals and those with special problems has been disappearing," he writes, "even while the supply for many of us has been increasing and improving."

There's a lesson in the fact that this takes White by surprise. The sweeping change in the low-income housing market over the past two decades is one of the most important, and least publicized, developments in the lives of poor Americans. In an odd way, the trend itself has been obscured by the homelessness that it has helped cause. So much ideological energy has been sent attacking or defending the idea that the homeless are "just like you and me," and that housing is all they need, that the dismal facts about the low-cost housing market have gotten shunted aside. When, after all, did you last hear a national politician talk of them?

Essentially three things have happened: The number of families needing cheap units has grown, the number of cheap private units has shrunk, and the slowing pace of government assistance has failed to make up the difference. The reason more families need cheap apartments is not just that population has grown. Families have also fragmented into more households, and wages have fallen. The reasons that cheap units have disappeared include gentrification, urban renewal, and inflation in construction and utility costs that have outstripped the cost of living. The destruction of single-room occupancy units (nearly a million of them during the seventies by Blau's count) has been much commented on, and both Blau and White agree that it has left many people homeless. But that is just part of a much more widespread change in the low-income housing market.

A study last year by two liberal Washington organizations--the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Low Income Housing Service--makes the point clear with some troubling numbers. Since 1970, the number of low-income renters has grown by 41 percent, to 9.6 million; but over the same period, the number of cheap units available shrank by 14 percent, to 5.5 million. In 1970, there were 400,000 more cheap units than needy households, but by 1990 the situation had dramatically reversed, with 4.1 million fewer units than renters. (Low-income renters were defined as those making less than $10,000 a year in 1989 terms and cheap apartments were defined as those costing less than $250 a month.)

The study estimated that almost half of the poor who rent homes in the United States now spend more than 70 percent of their income to do so. Statistics that bleak usually come as the result of ideological spin. So it came as a real alarm when John Weicher, a conservative Republican who serves as an assistant housing secretary, said he agreed with the basic conclusions. "Sure do," he said. "We've been saying so for a long time. If you're trying to get a disagreement on that, I'm probably of no help."

Blau concludes: "More than any other single phenomenon," it is the "relative increase in housing costs that explains the growth of the homeless population." White concludes: "When rent was cheaper, nd single-occupancy units were plentiful, the results of substance abuse did not as often lead to actual homelessness as they do today; in that sense, homelessness is a housing shortage."

In other words, "housing, housing, housing," may not be the whole solution to homelessness, but it's certainly a big part of it. The trends aren't encouraging. From 1977 to 1980, the government added an average of 290,000 subsidized units a year; for the past 10 years, however, the average has been only 78,000 units. Blau warns that when some accounting tricks catch up with the feds in a few years they will be able to afford even less.

Both Blau and White are clear that the market alone will not produce low-income housing. It is just too costly to build without government subsidies. In fact, both authors stress that, with the mortgage interest and property tax deductions, there really is very little unsubsidized housing in America. Blau puts the cost of the deductions at more than $50 billion next year-and the richer you are, the bigger your federal subsidy.

And there, in the back drop, is Sam Pierce, presiding over the plunder of a housing agency that was supposed to be helping the poor. There are the savings and loans, whose profligacy overwhelms the imagination. There are the Bush administration antipoverty memos that warn that concentrating on poverty might give the issue "greater visibility." There are the 270 minutes of televised presidential debate, where the subject of homelessness never even arose. White is right that in a decade of homeless advocacy, there's been some "lying." But in the end, this sounds like a story of injustice to me.
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Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Previous Article:The Visible Poor: Homelessness in the United States.
Next Article:Undue Process: A Story of How Political Differences Are Turned into Crimes.

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