We are faced daily with homelessness. People sleep in doorways and beg for loose change. Mentally ill people scream at unseen enemies. Homelessness challenges us personally and as a society. If a homeless person asks us for money we feel the conflict. If I give where does it go? If I don’t give, how will that person get by. Yet panhandlers are only a small percentage of the homeless. Homeless families are a significant percentage of the total homeless population. What will the future hold for the children who have known little stability and have seen their families crumble under unceasing stress. How can a nation so rich leave some people so poor? The numbers are staggering. According to an Urban Institute study in the late 1980s, 500,000-600,000 Americans are homeless on a given night.
It wasn’t always this way. For those of us whose memory stretches back at least as far as the 1960s and early 1970S. the sight of homeless people was rare and the presence of homeless families was unheard of. Indeed, homelessness was uncommon throughout the post-World War 11 economic boom. Our industrialized economy accommodated many workers without specialized training or education. For people on the margins of the economy, large skid row areas provided the resources to stay off the streets, On skid row even a poorly educated alcoholic could find a cheap room, get occasional day-labor work, and eat at the rescue mission. A portion of the increase in homelessness, both nationally and in San Francisco, can be attributed to the loss of skid row housing.
How did it happen? By the early 1970s, de- industrialization led to more unemployment and longer periods of time when people were unemployed. More households fell into the poor and near-poor brackets. Skid rows were vulnerable, since their residents were relatively powerless.
At the same time, San Francisco was responding to the changing economy by expanding the financial district south of Market Street and by constructing the Moscone Center. The result was the same in San Francisco as in other cities. Construction in the South of Market Area resulted in the loss of thousands of units in residential hotels. With fewer good-paying jobs and fewer cheap rooms, very poor people resorted to new survival strategies: scavenging for cans, blood banks, panhandling, and the occasional use of shelters.
As the economy underwent this change. the welfare state contracted. Payments from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) began lagging behind inflation. At the same time, more administrative barriers were placed in the way of access to AFDC. In the early 1980s, many recipients of Supplemental Security Income, which aids disabled people including some people with mental illness, were purged from the rolls. Nationally, 300,000 beneficiaries, including perhaps 100,000 with mental problems, lost their benefits.
By the late 1980s, researchers began to examine this emerging social crisis. At the University of Chicago, Michael Sosin compared 536 users of feeding programs, some homeless, others very poor but housed. He found very few differences in their personal characteristics, except that homeless people were much more likely to have been living alone and paying higher rent before becoming homeless. Furthermore, a high percentage of the homeless were either refused welfare or had been cut off from their benefits in the six months preceding their homeless episode. From these findings, Sosin concluded, ‘If-the homeless are just like the rest of the very poor, then dealing with poverty is the best way to ameliorate homelessness.”
This research notwithstanding, most cities around the country have treated homeless people as though they were fundamentally different from the rest of the poor. Consequently, cities responded to homelessness with shelters. The national shelter population rose by a factor of five between 1980 and 1990, reflecting both the growth in homelessness and in shelters them selves. The rise in shelter construction, in my view, reflects a fundamental miss-diagnosis of the problem. This diagnosis does not see homelessness as the result of fundamental shifts in the economy and in the housing structure, combined with the shredding of the social safety net. The problem analysis that usually underlies shelter construction identifies human failing, usually substance abuse and mental illness, as the cause of homelessness. Consequently, in this view, shelters must be constructed not only to provide a safe place for home less people, but to provide counseling to change their flawed character.
Today’s homeless shelters are similar to the 19th century poorhouses, where the aged, the mentally ill, poor families, and out of work laborers, were shut away. The original sponsors confidently predicted that poorhouses would promote the work ethic while saving the state money. The 19th century poorhouses proved to be expensive, cruel, and incapable -of transforming human lives, Michael Katz summed up their failure in In the shadow of the Poorhouse: “Miserable, poorly managed, under-funded institutions, trapped by their own contradictions, poorhouses failed to meet any of the goals so confidently predicted by their sponsors.” You would think that we would have learned our lesson, but the poor house has reared its ugly head again in the guise of homeless shelters.
In the modem version of the poorhouse, conditions are often very poor. In San Francisco, the Mission Rock Shelter is located in a dilapidated warehouse. Rows upon rows of cots are draped by dreary gray blankets. Bathrooms and showers are temporary. Only five hard working caseworkers serve the 600 residents. In New York City, shelter residents were asked to compare the shelters to their experience in prison. Prisons were rated as superior in personal safety, privacy cleanliness, and food quality. Prisons, as you might expect, were inferior mainly in personal freedom. It should be noted that family shelters in San Francisco are cleaner and better staffed than the Mission Rock shelter.
Like the 19th Century poorhouses, homeless shelters are expensive. Mission Rock costs $3.2 million a year. That comes to $5,400 a bed per year or $450 per bed per month. Compare that to General Assistance, the City’s main cash assistance grant to single adults who are not classified as disabled, which pays $345 per month, or $279 for those not in the work program. Even that small payment fends off homelessness for most recipients. Two-thirds of General Assistance recipients are not homeless.
If not shelters, then what? To close down shelters immediately would result in hundreds of people walking the streets, but we should work to make them as unnecessary as possible. Since major research suggests that homelessness is not a personal trait, but an economic status, our response should be to help homeless people gain access to tangible goods. With this approach in mind, here are a few ideas to reduce homelessness in America, beginning at the federal level down to the local level:
Michael Padding is executive director of the San Francisco Council on Poverty and Homelessness. This article original appeared in the SPUR newsletter, SF, and was shortened for republication.