Progress against homelessness

The New York Times carries the first upbeat story about the battle against homelessness that I have read in a long time.

It reads in part:

“In this campaign, promoted by a little-known office of the Bush administration, 219 cities, at last count, have started ambitious 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness.

The cities include New York, which is stepping up efforts to house the estimated nearly 4,000 people huddling on sidewalks or sleeping in parks, and Henderson, N.C., population 17,000, which recently counted 91 homeless people, 14 of them chronic cases.

Many of the early starters are reporting turnarounds. In Philadelphia, street dwellers have declined 60 percent over five years. In San Francisco, the number of the chronic homeless is down 28 percent in two years, in Dallas 26 percent and in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., 15 percent.”

Part of the credit, those interviewed said, “goes to Philip F. Mangano, a Bush appointee who has spent five years visiting every mayor and governor he can, brandishing successful examples, cost-benefit studies and his own messianic fervor along with modest amounts of federal money.”

At various points during the 1980s, I spent time reporting on homelessness, though never enough to come up with a comprehensive sense of why it remained such a persistent problem. To simplify my own experience: some of the people I interviewed were homeless in the most literal sense of that word. They just didn’t have a home at the moment. But when they got one, they’d probably be able to pick up their lives and go on. I met a lot of people like this in shelters when I was a reporter in Syracuse.

Then there were people who were homeless, but for whom that was among the least of a long list of problems. Once in the late ’80s I worked on a story for The Washington Post that involved talking to people who slept on the streets about their plans for hte coming winter. The great majority of these folks had problems that made it impossible for them to keep a home or a job. Many needed treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, but just as many were mentally ill and needed (in this lay man’s diagnosis) extensive psychiatric care. The de-institutionalization of mental patients in the late 1970s has been a disaster–maybe because the community health clinics that advocates of deinstitutionalization pinned their hopes on never materialized. Maybe because the plan was wildly naive from the start. Then again, institutionalization was pretty much a disaster, too.

A population that used to suffer privately now suffers publicly. Until we come up with some coherent ideas about how to help them, the problem of homelessness won’t go away.

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