Homeless stream runs deeper, but does anybody really care?

March 23, 1994|By Esther R. Reaves

A DECADE has passed since homelessness worked its way into public consciousness. During that time, there's been a change in the homeless, and there's been a change in the way society views homelessness.

In the early 1980s, the noticeable homeless were men in their 30s who had lost jobs, along with middle-aged men addicted to alcohol. By the mid-'80s, women were also counted among the homeless, and by the end of the decade, entire families were without homes.

Today, there's a steady stream of homeless people, and the stream runs deeper every day. The U.S. Conference of Mayors found in a survey of 26 cities that demand for shelter increased 10 percent last year. In Maryland, there has been a 25 percent increase in the number of people served in shelters in the last five years. Of the more than 50,000 sheltered last year, a fourth were under 18, and 35 percent were families. Thousands were turned away because of a lack of beds.

Public perception has changed, too. At first, people were incredulous: How could a society as rich as ours allow people to be without homes? But over the years that changed. The public now tends to stereotype the homeless, viewing the men as shiftless and alcohol-addicted, the women as baby-makers, unfit mothers undeserving of help. (No one wants to hear that 30 percent of the homeless have jobs -- but jobs that pay minimum wages or less.) The question "Why are these people still The City Council panhandling bill has reset the boundary.

homeless?" has changed to "Why don't these people get a job?"

Meanwhile, the media -- and many of the advocates for the homeless -- focus on the homeless as victim, not on the root causes of their plight. In his book "Blaming the Victim," William Ryan asks, "To whom are social problems a problem?" "Certainly not I," we think, and we can't believe that we helped cause them. Poverty is one of those problems. If people are in poverty, we think they have failed to learn the rules of society.

In the past year or so, people have begun standing at major intersections (suburban and city) with signs reading, "Homeless. Will work for food."

They also have become aggressive in panhandling. This has made the homeless much more visible. In the past, they had been almost invisible, avoiding eye contact and aggressive begging.

Now, though, they have caught public attention and moved over the boundary between the haves and the have-nots. The City Council panhandling bill has essentially reset the boundary. It doesn't say you can't panhandle; it says where and how you can panhandle. It defines a comfort zone for the haves, protecting them from a social problem they think is not of their making. And the "street cards" handed to panhandlers are a solution for those handing them out, not for those on the receiving end.

Why should we be concerned? Should we care that homelessness has a traumatic and potentially lasting effect on children? Should we care that the country has experienced a lengthy recession, that millions have been laid off, that thousands of kids drop out of school each year, that drugs and crime pervade neighborhoods, that AIDS is a leading cause of death among young people, that the welfare system desperately needs reform? If we did, we might come to a better understanding of what it means to be homeless.

Esther R. Reaves is executive director of the Mid-Town Churches Community Association.

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