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How Reagan Created "The Homeless," & Why Charity Can't Fix It [View All]

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Hannah Bell Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-03-08 11:38 PM
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How Reagan Created "The Homeless," & Why Charity Can't Fix It
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In 2008, an estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million people will be homeless for some part of the year - & the numbers have been growing. Americans have grown accustomed to seeing people sleeping in the streets of their big cities: the "homeless" seem to be a fact of nature, like the weather.

Yet I remember a time when it wasn't so. Pre-Reagan, in downtown Seattle. Sure, there were poor people downtown - mostly older men. They hung out on the streets around the market, but they didn't sleep there, they didn't even panhandle. They slept in SRO's - single-room occupancy hotels - on 1st & 2nd aves. It was a seedy area, but I was a young girl at the time, & I wasn't afraid to go there.

I left the US at the beginning of the Reagan years & returned in 1985; suddenly we had "homelessness". I was young. The papers said it was "mental patients" & "recession," so I accepted that explanation.

It was only when I got involved with a homeless shelter that I learned how the homeless problem grew from near-invisible to omnipresent in the space of 5 years. Here's the short version, from the "Without Housing" Coalition.

"In 1978, HUDs budget was over $83 billion.

In 1983, HUDs budget was only $18 billion.

In 1983, general public emergency shelters began opening in cities nationwide.

In 1987, Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Act, providing $880 million in homeless assistance funding (2004 constant dollars).

In short, Reagan deliberately created "homelessness" by cutting 65 billion of housing money & replacing it with $880 million in shelter funding.

The lost funding has never been replaced, & the percentage of low-cost housing & subsidized housing has been dropping ever since. 100,000 units of low-cost housing have been lost since 1996 alone.

Other factors that have exacerbated homelessness:

Thirty-five years of wage stagnation, achieved through a variety of means.

The Volker recession, deliberately prolonged & deepened to push back labor activism & organizing & drive down wages.

Increasing income inequality achieved though tax cuts at the top & other means. More money to the top drives up the price of land & housing & concentrates ownership of these assets - just like an influx of rich outsiders drives up the price of housing in a small town.

Increased competition for lower-wage jobs from immigrants (LEGAL immigration, which since the 80's has been set at turn-of-the-century levels for unskilled labor, precisely to drive down wages.)

Rises in the cost of medical care & higher education, far above the inflation rate.

The decline in the percentage of the population with medical insurance & guaranteed pensions.

The substitution of credit for income as people struggle to maintain "normal" lifestyles (& business struggles to maintain "normal" levels of commerce).

Homelessness isn't a fact of nature; it's been deliberately created by public policy.

Before I learned how homelessness was deliberately created, I'd been proud that the little community I live in now had pulled together in the 80's to create a homeless shelter.

According to the local feel-good story, a coalition of locals recognized the "growing problem." "With some government money that happened to be available & lots of local donations & volunteer hours," people worked together for the common good.

In reality, what most likely happened was this: Local government leaders got notice of HUD cuts & the availability of shelter funding. They talked to their local private sector friends, asked them to put their influence behind a shelter effort to solicity donations & volunteers. Then they applied for the federal shelter grant money - voila.

The local leadership knew there were going to be more homeless people, & they knew why. But they didn't tell their constituents. They pretended it was just some accident our town had "homelessness," where it didn't before. Everyone patted themselves on the back for being so "caring," & life went on - but now there was this "problem," & it kept growing. And since it kept growing, despite the generous help, more people began to resent the homeless, blame them, & despise them for their failure. Particularly when some of the helpers were close to the edge themselves, & others were doing so very well for themselves.

In the 2 years I was associated with the shelter, federal funding was cut, & struggles to raise more money from other sources intensified.

Almost all the churches in town participated in feeding programs. Community groups came in regularly to do service work. High school students volunteered for senior projects. Kindergarten kids sent pennies & canned foods. Artists did art projects, people sponsored raffles, gardeners & restaurants donated food. The state & local gov's freed up more money. Massive amounts of volunteer energy were expended.

Not only that, there was another, smaller shelter in town. And several other meals programs, Bible studies, donations of free medical & eye care, a big mental health establishment which largely served the indigent, teaching them to believe they had "chemical imbalances" which caused them to be depressed, addicted, or to "act out".

All this money (several million dollars), all these caring people.

The number of homeless the shelter served just increased, & the same faces rotated through over & over. This is a small town; many of the "homeless" had been there before. They'd get a job, get a place - something would go wrong, & they'd be back.

In short, lots of activity, lots of energy & caring people, but things just got worse.

The root problem is not that homeless folks don't have "skills". The problem is not that they're "crazy". The problem is not that they "lack self-esteem," or are addicts, or criminals, or come from broken families, or need cell-phones or jogging clubs, or lessons on budgeting & nutrition.

Some homeless may find these things useful sometimes, but the lack of these things isn't what creates homelessness - because folks WITH homes often have similar problems & deficits.

But the lack of stable housing & work will certainly exacerbate & CREATE depression & mental illness, substance abuse, family break-up, crime, & hard to eradicate declines in self-respect & hope. Multi-generational.

I am tired of being chided for "killing hope" because I remind people that it's housing & jobs that are needed, & a cease-fire in the 35-year war on the working class - not feel-good projects aimed at making "losers" "more competitive" in a system where 20% of the population NECESSARILY exist one step away from homelessness because the structure of the economy demands it.

If people can get together to build homeless shelters, they can get together to change the way the system creates the homeless, and yes - anything less serves the do-gooders more than the done-to. Reagan created homelessness in 5 years. It can be ended in 5 years as well, if we stop cheering for cell phones & jogging lessons & start pushing for economic change.

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