Homeless need more than just a place to live State could address substance abuse, scarcity of jobs

December 01, 1996|By JOHN R. BELCHER AND BRUCE DEFORGE

IT'S COLD, getting colder. Dark down here in the alley. A passer-by in a suit rattles the change in his pocket, says he hasn't any money to spare. You grit your teeth. Turn your back to get out of the attacking wind. Another night on the street.

Every year about this time, advocates for the homeless wring their hands in frustration at the lack of adequate shelter beds.

Contributions from charitable organizations and city and state governments pay for more beds. However, each year the demand for beds exceeds the supply, and more people face life without a roof over their heads.

To end this cycle, the focus of social policy must shift in a fundamental way, from actually maintaining homelessness - indeed, fostering it by casting adrift the most troubled members of our society - to doing everything possible to end it.

The problem

First, we need to understand the problem:

How do people become homeless? Numerous pathways into homelessness have been delineated by research: severe mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, lack of low-cost affordable housing, illiteracy, limited job skills and unemployment.

Many private organizations and government agencies seek to block these pathways through comprehensive services, such as mental health counseling, housing subsidies, shelters, soup kitchens and substance abuse programs. But these efforts are often grossly under-funded, and they are only able to make small gains in the battle against the cold, uncovered night.

Sometimes the homeless freeze to death, but most muddle through, receiving the muted level of public attention that marks a systemic social problem.

The causes of homelessness lie both in social conditions and within homeless people themselves. To reduce the numbers of homeless, social policies must address both macro and micro causes.

Catch-as-catch-can

The catch-as-catch-can economy of Baltimore City has been a ** major contributor toward homelessness. A review of area homeless services reveals that policy has concentrated on housing, food and medical care. That's sensible because these programs are essential in ensuring that basic subsistence needs are achieved.

Macro conditions, however, such as the economic development of an urban community, are difficult to change.

Only limited success has been had in transforming the Baltimore economy so that more decent low-skill jobs are created.

Currently, the city's employment market reflects two extremes: high-end service sector jobs (white-collar or professional) on one end; on the other, jobs that require few skills, offer little pay and no benefits, and are largely dead-end. These latter jobs, despite their meager pay and bleak future, are sought after by the thousands of unemployed poor residing in metropolitan Baltimore, as well as by the homeless.

The city needs a sufficient base of manufacturing jobs that could provide higher wages and training for skilled labor.

That puts us right in line with every other major post-industrial center along the Eastern seaboard - and the line isn't getting any shorter.

Self-sufficient by order

Newly enacted welfare reforms at the state and federal levels further complicate the problem. The legislation requires that individuals receiving assistance must become self-sufficient within a specified time period, usually two years.

Unfortunately, self-sufficiency for the homeless is difficult to obtain. First, research indicates that only about a quarter of this population receives some form of General Assistance or Supplemental Security Income, even though the vast majority is eligible.

Second, it's an oversimplification to declare that the homeless can be "mandated" to work. Many of them struggle with multiple conditions impairing their ability to hold a job. Moreover, the leading characteristic of the homeless population is its heterogeneity - it reflects a startlingly wide range in age, gender, socioeconomic status and race.

Still, despite the growing numbers of adolescents, young adults and families with young children joining the ranks of the homeless, the typical unsheltered person is a male, exhibiting a history of substance abuse, unemployment or spotty employment, few job skills, some encounters with the law, and little orientation to the world of work.

Taking responsibility

While our aim here is not to blame the homeless, they must assume some responsibility for their predicament. As Lawrence Mead, a noted poverty scholar, has argued, many poor people make bad choices. This statement may be unpalatable for many liberals and advocates for the homeless, but our work with the homeless indicates that many of them have gone the wrong way - a way that, over time, has contributed to their terrible situation.

Regardless, we have to remember that overarching societal conditions limit the opportunities of hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and that in itself leads many to make the mistakes that can lead to an existence in relatively oppressive conditions.

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