The homeless

Having spent years in social work and briefly managed a homeless shelter, I feel we are being misled.  The homeless are portrayed as the ‘nation’s failure’, the ‘disenfranchised’, who were ‘abandoned’ by the economy, ‘never had a chance’, and have ‘fallen out of the mainstream’.  They are ‘victims’ who are owed food, lodging, clothing, and services.

Some are shown on a food line with bizarre mountains of hair and dirty, matted beards.  No one would hire them that way; yet they’re never asked to get a haircut and shave in return for meals and lodging.

We are rarely given the views of those who deal directly with them – bus depots, blood banks, merchants, neighbors, thrift stores, parks, libraries, burned-out relatives, and burned-out public servants.  We rarely hear, ‘90% of them don’t want help’ (from one shelter worker), or ‘one-third are crazy, one-third lazy, and one-third drunk’ (from one of the formerly homeless).

We’re told nothing can be done about skid row.  We were told the same about prostitution in Los Angeles before it was cleaned up.  Free food is supposed to be temporary, yet one patron of a mission didn’t miss a meal in 30 years.  Shelters in New York were for temporary housing, yet the average stay was 11 months.  One skid row drifter won a huge jackpot, blew it, and returned to skid row.  Another thought he would ‘go on welfare, when it began to rain’.

The subject needs cold-blooded realists to cut through the rhetoric, emotion, and finger-pointing, to contact the neglected sources above, and to come up with recommendations like:

  1. Study what has worked in various cities and countries. – Clarify rights:  the homeless have a right to provide their own shelters [in some areas under certain conditions] when the city doesn’t. The public has a right not to be panhandled and not to have derelicts sleeping about.
  2. Find out why there were homeless during a labor shortage and why few im­migrants become homeless.  – Find out why one homeless man said it’s easier to be homeless than to work for low wages.  – Consider returning to the past customs of dealing firmly with vag­rants, mental patient­s, runa­ways, alcoholics, and addicts.  – Promote private solutions, realizing the government has done a poor job of running shelters and welfare hotels.  – Encourage non-professionals to run shelters.  Make it profitable.  Let them use campgrounds, farm labor camps, abandoned buildings, parts of military bases, and fallout shelters.   – Let businesses hire the homeless for sub-minimum wage plus room and board.
  3. Require each community to provide shelter for only their share of the homeless.  Require they be run strict­ly and fairly.  – Study the shelters that are run by the homeless.  – Let the homeless homestead abandoned build­ings and vacant land.  – Allow tents and shanties next to city dumps, where the homeless can use cast off material.  – Wave liability for impure food from restaurants, markets, and other outlets.  This would give access to eatable, but unsalable food.  – Permit powdered milk and donated or homemade food in shelters. 
    – Require work, haircuts, and development of resumes in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, etc.

A stricter approach in general with the homeless would show:

  1. Some people prefer to live near destitution.
  2. Make the homeless accountable for their hygiene, grooming, clothing, manners and participa­tion in self-help groups and volunteer work
  3. Make shelters safer and less infectious
  4. Bring responsibility, which would separate the motivated from the free-loaders.

We shouldn’t be misled by idealists and guilt-mongers.  They give the homeless reasons for self-pity, and never look for nor credit the few good shelters.  They blame society, yet tie it’s hands.

If immigrants with limited English can get ahead, the homeless can, when the responsibility is imaginatively and firmly put on them.