Sunday, September 21, 2008

Out For The Count

In case you missed it, the New York Times covered the homeless definitions issue that is at the heart of the national legislative debate right now. The article is odd. Somehow, the reporter managed to write 1,100 words on the subject and still miss the point.

This year's renewal of $1.7 billion in federal legislation to fund homeless programs has centered on the issue of whether those who are considered homeless under the Department of Education definition and thus able to attend public school — those doubled up or living vulnerably in poverty motels — should also be eligible for homeless assistance from HUD.

One position is that homeless is homeless, and the nation needs to step up and deal with reality. The other, which is supported by President Bush and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, argues that in a time of limited resources, we need to focus on those who are most desperate.
Several advocacy groups, including the National Coalition for the Homeless, argue that the HUD definition should more closely mirror the Education Department’s. ... These advocates note that many families live in communities where shelters are full or nonexistent. In other places, some say, shelters sometimes bar large families, families with two parents or those with boys older than 10.

“I think we have to take care of our most vulnerable,” Ms. Biggert said. “Shouldn’t children as well as the others be a priority?”

Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, echoed those concerns. “This is really about our nation acknowledging the extent of the housing crisis and the devastation it wreaks on children, youth and family,” she said. “The housing crisis is bigger than the emergency system put in place to address it 20 years ago.”

Opponents of a broad expansion of the definition counter that demand for shelter beds already exceeds supply. About 700,000 people live in shelters or on the streets on any given day, housing officials say. But federal dollars finance only 170,000 beds.

Some advocates also fear that communities would shift resources from single, mentally ill or addicted people to doubled-up families who were newly classified as homeless. Such families are typically easier to serve and politically more appealing.

“Nobody thinks that these families are having an easy time of it,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But when push comes to shove, when you’ve got people in apartments and people in shelters and on the streets, the people in the latter group need the help more.” ...

Whatever the number, “we need to deal with the most desperate the best that we can and keep working” toward greater expansion, said Representative Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who heads the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity. “We don’t want to create competition and have people at each other’s throats for limited space.”
OK. So let's review. Less than 25% of current shelter receives any federal support. This shelter, numbered at 700,000 or so beds, does not include those who lack housing but are not literally on the street or in a homeless shelter already. Counting these, worry some, would stretch already scarce federal support even more thinly, leading to some sort of ugly Darwinian competition for shelter beds that don't exist. Regardless of which version of the expanded definition gets passed, no new resources will be made available.

When it comes to poor people, the feds are officially out of money. Large badly-run financial institutions, on the other hand, are always a good public investment

Which means this debate, for now, isn't about whether the numbers of homeless people who get help gets expanded. It's more about how accurately we account for the various ways in which poor people are being fucked.

Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, homeless advocates routinely took great pains to point out that families with children make up the great majority of those who are homeless. Those who look homeless — the mentally ill, drunk, and addicted — were the red headed step children of homeless advocacy. These two categories — sympathetic families with kids and somewhat frightening single men — divided neatly across the lines of deserving and undeserving poor. Homeless families got shelter and transitional housing, and single homeless men with problems got hot soup, a mat on the floor if they were lucky, and a bus ticket out of town.

Then came the glitzification (I just made that word up) of our downtown areas and the national preoccupation with ending chronic (read visible) homelessness. Suddenly, homelessness became all about the most dysfunctional: the drunk, the addicted, the mentally ill. These problematic but relative few have become the focus of our concern, and the cure usually resembles small servings of carrot paired with liberal helpings of stick.

"Homeless advocacy" became the new found passion of hundreds of instant experts. Quasi-governmental public/private planning bodies erupted across the country to manage the growing contradiction of growing affluence and poverty in a changing urban landscape. Ending chronic homelessness through ten year plans became the driving paradigm as desperate localities uncritically followed the money that trickled down from the feds. The definition of "chronically homeless" itself began to narrow. The numbers went down. Success was declared.

To now broaden the definition would be to undermine the illusion that means so much to so many. This we cannot do.

The federally imposed Ten Year Plan To End Homelessness template has reduced our scope of concern to the homeless that are bad for business. As for the others, if we don't see them, they don't exist. We can pretend, along with the NAEH's Steve Berg, that raising kids in an exhorbitantly priced, crack-infested transient hotel is the same thing as having "an apartment."

What I'm saying here is this: One can't understand why the federal definition of homelessness should be expanded without first understanding how and why it has been narrowed. The HUD press releases focus on reductions in chronic homelessness. When family homelessness increases, the media is seldom alerted.

Poverty in America isn't news anymore. Not unless it pisses on your sidewalk.

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