Homeless get little aid

August 24, 2004|By Richard Pretorius

NEW YORK -- As the news tickers and video screens flashed up-to-the-minute happenings, tourists in Times Square mulled which 9/11 souvenirs to buy: an NYPD hat, a Ground Zero photo or perhaps a firefighters' calendar of heroes.

In their midst, a bedraggled man with either a stinging sense of humor or an over-the-edge desperation wore a cardboard sign around his neck, saying, "Taunt Me $2." Nearby, a can collector guarded his half-full shopping cart as if it were Fort Knox. Behind a sidewalk table, a formerly homeless person implored passers-by to drop some change into a collection bin to help the currently homeless.

Nearly three years after the city that never sleeps was shaken by evil on a massive scale, the impact of that dreadful day is ever present. But so, too, are the reminders of the social problems that have been relegated to the fine print of the nation's political agenda.

If weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaida and terrorist training camps have become part of the lexicon, thoughts of creating an America where people aren't reduced to collecting aluminum cans to buy a meal have been relegated to the corners of the national conscience.

The Republicans will come to New York City next week to nominate George W. Bush for another four years in the White House. They will tout the toppling of Saddam Hussein and real and imagined victories in the war on terror. They will talk about tax breaks for the well-to-do and middle class and a hodgepodge of issues the conservatives associate with family values. They will congratulate themselves for being in power when the country stood up to terrorism.

But what, if anything, will they have to say about people whose homes are cardboard boxes? Or those working two jobs to get by? Or all the Americans who have wondered why billions have been earmarked to rebuild Iraq while they have not been able to find a decent paying job or affordable housing?

The record of compassionate conservatism does not hold out much promise that four more years of a Bush presidency would make their lives any better. While the administration has proposed an additional $70 million to provide services for the homeless under the feel-good name of the Samaritan Initiative, it also has been pushing for a $1.6 billion cut in the Section 8 rental assistance program that helps many poor people pay for housing.

Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, described the absurdity best at a House subcommittee hearing last month: "If the administration's Section 8 budget is approved, more people in this country will experience homelessness even if the Samaritan Initiative is signed into law. I cannot quite follow the sense of that, of putting up some money to help people not be homeless at the same time you are creating more homelessness over there. We are taking from Peter to pay Paul."

While the House Appropriations Committee thankfully rejected the proposed plan, it's obvious the president lacks a basic sense of the lives of the poor. Mr. Bush couches his concern in noblesse oblige platitudes.

For example, at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania July 9, he said, "I know America can change, one heart at a time. ... There are people who are homeless looking for help. And there's the hungry. And the best way, in my judgment, to heal the hurt is to call upon those who have heard the universal call to love a neighbor just like they'd like to be loved themselves."

While compassion, churches and the private sector are a vital part of the solution, more federal cash and a stronger White House commitment are keys to coming anywhere close to the Bush goal of ending homelessness in 10 years. One can only have so much faith in something labeled a faith-based initiative. Thinking an extra $70 million will make more than a dent in the homeless problem is, in the word of Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, of Massachusetts, "ludicrous."

But then so, too, is the reality of a citizen of the richest country on earth parading around Times Square asking for two dollars to be insulted.

Madison Square Garden, site of the GOP convention, is only 10 blocks away.

Richard Pretorius is a Washington journalist and an adjunct journalism professor at Catholic University.

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