When giving shelter to the homeless isn't enough

December 19, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

Kevin unfolds his 6-foot-3-inch frame into a wooden chair, lights a cigarette, stretches out the legs that earned him a college basketball scholarship -- and tells you how he's never really been on his feet.

At 31, he's been in and out of jails, jobs, the military, homeless shelters, college, a marriage, psychiatric wards, group homes, the dean's list and recovery centers.

Mainly, in and out of cocaine highs.

After two nights sleeping in cars, he's landed, once again, at Baltimore's Eutaw Center emergency shelter. Sharp, glib and smartly dressed in his green Ralph Lauren jersey, black jeans and Reeboks, Kevin has an answer for everything except what will help him.

"What will get me clean? That's what everybody asks," says Kevin, who asked that his last name not be used.

For tonight at least, he'll be counted as one of the nation's homeless, a growing swarm of men, women and children whose numbers have swollen so greatly in the last decade -- estimates are now anywhere from 600,000 to 3 million -- that the public often turns a blind eye to their existence.

Just as shelter providers and homeless advocates search for ways to reach a man who knows he'll get high the next time he has 20 bucks in his pocket, a Democratic administration -- getting an up-close look at homelessness as winter approaches-- is trying to figure out how to respond to what looks more and more like an intractable problem.

At the heart of the debate is a basic, but confounding question: Who are the homeless and what will help them?

And lately, a growing chorus of homelessness specialists, including the administration's top housing officials, are casting their gaze beyond housing and unemployment to such adjuncts to homelessness as substance abuse and mental illness.

"We know one-third of the persons who are homeless on any given night are suffering from some form of mental illness," says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros. "Another one-third are suffering from drug addiction or alcohol addiction, and another one-third have a complex of problems that ranges from personality disorders that make them unsuitable for a job to family breakdowns and just spiritual exhaustion."

While he and others acknowledge a need for more shelters and more affordable housing, they are framing new solutions around treatment and services for ills they believe are at the root of much homelessness.

For the past decade -- as the recession, the culture of drug and alcohol addiction and the closing of mental hospitals sent more people onto the streets -- the debate over homelessness has been highly polarized.

Homeless advocates and liberal thinkers defined the homeless population as ordinary people down on their luck, victims of the dearth of affordable housing and uncharitable Republican policies. If there were substance abuse and mental instability among the homeless, they argued, it was largely a result of their bleak lives on the street rather than the cause of their homelessness.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have portrayed the homeless as dysfunctional people disconnected from society because of drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness who are often beyond help.

Although there are still strong cries from both corners, new voices are calling for solutions that go beyond the network of private and public shelters and soup kitchens that sprang up around the country in the last 10 years, and beyond housing alone.

The most compelling argument for new thinking: The old remedies haven't worked.

"We're at the point now where we see basic services aren't enough," says Marsha Martin, executive director of the administration's Interagency Council on the Homeless. "We have transition people out of homelessness and into something real in the community.

"We know more now. It's a little more depressing now. The question is, are we ready to change the paradigm in our response?"

*

Harry, who asked that his last name not be used, is an articulate, educated 44-year-old marine machinist at Eutaw Center, a father and grandfather who is working temporary part-time jobs for minimum wage. "I will get a job. I'm sure of that. The problem has been holding one long enough to secure and keep a permanent residence. I've been laid off. I've had jobs where I haven't shown up. . . . When I drank, I drank like a fish. I drank until I was immobile. I couldn't work. When I'm working, I'm tops at what I do. I am at fault for my predicament. I don't blame it on anyone else but me."

The administration view

As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, given more to talking about the middle class, rarely raised the topic of homelessness. As president, he's been equally quiet, leaving the subject to Mr. Cisneros and Assistant HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, as the White House takes on health care and welfare reform.

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