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When We Notice the Homeless

As Hurricane Ike raced through the Gulf of Mexico and into Texas the issue of homelessness was given no attention in the mass media.  Three years before, as Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, the national media could not escape paying at least passing attention to the issue, given the catastrophic damage to life and property that Katrina caused.

Following Ike’s passage, Pacifica Radio Network’s Free Speech Radio News interviewed two homeless men in Houston.  Both men spent their time outdoors while Ike lashed the area with heavy rains and wind.  One man stood on the leeward side of a major hotel, while the other, never having heard the forecast for the hurricane, weathered the storm much like he would have spent any other day that involved inclement weather.

Homelessness is not a topic that often makes the headlines of newspapers or the evening news on major television networks.  It only catches the attention of the public when a disaster strikes or when a news item surfaces that happens to involve homeless people.

The causes of homelessness have been known for some time.  The generally accepted reasons for people living without shelter at night are:

The shift beginning in the 1950s from commitment of mentally ill people in institutions to community-based treatment. Gentrifications of cities. Lack of affordable housing. High unemployment and the lack of quality job training programs, particularly job programs that provided certified career training. Natural disasters. Stigma of having served time in prison.

It was under the presidency of Bill Clinton that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed that placed a 5-year limit of welfare payments.  This so-called welfare reform severed the federal government’s responsibility to help the poor.  This is stark contrast to the current bailouts of financial giants like Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  It depends on just who you know if you’re going to qualify for welfare from the federal government.

It is estimated that 70% of those removed from welfare roles were children.  According to the Census Bureau 1 million people sank further into poverty as a result of “welfare reform.”  Homelessness is a logical result of these policies.

In a 2005 article in USA Today, “Nation taking a new look at homelessness, solutions,” figures based on survey results from the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 1 in 400 Americans was homeless, or about 727,304 people.  Estimates of homeless people always miss the mark and are notoriously undependable since the homeless are not the type of people easily located or interested in completing surveys.  Surveys usually grossly underestimate homelessness.

In the late 1980s a group of concerned folks in southern Rhode Island formed a homeless coalition.  We were a motley group made up of antiwar and antinuclear activists and members from the religious community from several nearby communities.  While we may have been an informal gathering we got results!  The economy was beginning to feel the effects of globalization, and the loss of good manufacturing jobs in New England had long been an economic issue to be dealt with.

Our first attempt to shelter the homeless involved a “roving” shelter that was housed for two nights at a time at local churches, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall and the American Legion Hall.  Setting up and moving the shelter was a real headache.  Cots and food had to be lugged from site to site.

Our group received a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and we were on our way to finding a permanent address.  Soon, I became the grant writer for the shelter and we were awarded several grants.  I had already had some experience in sheltering operations, since a childhood neighbor, a priest, had successfully set up a shelter in the Providence area and I had volunteered at that shelter for some time.

Our group was able to purchase a site for our permanent shelter, and after extensive renovations—one of our board members was a builder—the shelter opened.  The shelter was nearly always full and we hired an executive director to take care of day-to-day shelter operations.  All kinds of people sought shelter.  There were people at the margins of the work force and the newly unemployed, usually one paycheck away from the streets.  There were mothers with children escaping bad marriages.  There were people with drug abuse and alcohol abuse problems, and there were those with mental illnesses.

When I left the board of directors of the shelter I was interested in establishing a more permanent option for families living in the shelter who had greater long-term needs than the shelter could offer them.  My old neighbor had already founded such a house in the Providence metropolitan area.  Looking back at my years in serving on the board I don’t find it surprising when the issue of homelessness gets momentary attention in the media and then fades in the public mind.  While the big players in the economy get sustained attention, the vulnerable folks, often children, aren’t given quite the same care.

HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer.  He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

 

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