Helping hand for the homeless

Alan Lupo

September 24, 1992|By Alan Lupo

NEWS flash: Someone has invented the wheel. Again.

The other day there was a story about how some old cities and their housing authorities, some urbanologists (are they doctors?) and some black people are reconsidering their alleged views on helping the homeless.

It seems these institutions and individuals, labeled "liberals," are worried that homeless families are often problem families who, when moved into subsidized housing, make life more difficult for the neighbors. Really? Read on.

It also seems that these institutions and individuals have concluded that providing shelter to problem families isn't enough, that families need all kinds of services. Hey, someone call all the news organizations! Wait, there is more.

It also seems that these institutions and individuals have figured out that neighborhoods and even housing developments endure best when they include an economic mix rather than mostly poor folk. No kidding, Sherlocks!

This latest incarnation of the obvious was prompted by the Boston Housing Authority's decision to limit the number of homeless families in its projects. The story noted that Chelsea, Lynn and Brockton officials (most of whom would be aghast at being called liberals) also had tried to ban additional homeless from their turf.

Recently, when Democrats and Republicans cooperated to slash subsidized housing funds, one reason was that the families moving into the housing were troublemakers who destabilized neighborhoods that were already on the edge.

This has little to do with liberals changing their minds about how to help the homeless. It has a lot to do with street reality, which undoubtedly predates liberalism or conservatism. At issue here is the old "It's bad for the neighborhood" syndrome, which started in Eden.

"That Abel is a nice boy, but that Cain? Hoo-haa, a hooligan. He'll ruin this paradise, mark my word."

Demographics being what they are, it may be that most Americans born after '50-something did not grow up as near-poor but rather in leafy 'burbs where most residents were of the same economic status. They were, therefore, shielded from the aforementioned street reality.

That piece of reality is as follows: If you don't have much and are just making it, you are wary of those neighbors who have less and do not seem to be making it. You wish to protect what little you have, and you think, often with good reason, that they wish to either take it from you or, at the least, to behave in such a way as to diminish the value of what little you have.

In other words, you'll pop a cold one in the kitchen, but they'll guzzle outside on the stoop. You might smoke a joint, but they'll deal crack on the corner. You'll argue inside the apartment, and they'll scream out the window.

Those now observing the concern over the homeless seem to be drawing a line between the homeless and the working poor. That's too clear a line, too simple a concept. There are many lines. Many years ago, housing project residents followed by academic observers concluded that big projects full of only the very poor did not work very well. And that was before the homeless crisis.

To the surprise of many middle-class blow-ins and drop-ins, housing authority tenant task force members often did not -- and do not -- fit some preconceived notion of "liberal." They have a stake in those projects and want to keep an economic mix.

So, what then to do with the poorest of the poor? Of course, providing shelter isn't enough, and all kinds of services are needed, which means raising taxes. But a home is essential, and if both the projects and the old city neighborhoods have done more than their share of providing same, it would appear to be somebody else's turn -- perhaps that of those tony 'burbs, home to both parlor liberals and not-in-my-backyard conservatives.

Finally, the answer is the reincarnated wheel incarnate: society must help not only the very poor but also the near-poor, the working poor, the besieged middle class. To help one and not the others is to perpetuate class warfare.

Alan Lupo is a Boston Globe columnist.

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