Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

How do we find a roof for everyone?

SHELTER is a basic need that is going wanting in virtually every city in the United States. But successful steps are being taken in the fight against homelessness in some places.

A church in Memphis helps channel the homeless to shelters and appropriate services. A rehabilitation center in New York City seeks to prevent the mentally ill from ending up on the street. A nonprofit group in Los Angeles offers transition housing and a wide range of services for people struggling to get back into the mainstream of society.

About these ads

Homelessness in the US needs an institutional response, say experts, a united effort by government, the private sector, and the public. But, they add, it cannot simply become an accepted institution with responses that meet only emergency needs.

The most important need for the homeless is affordable housing. As low-income housing has disappeared and federal housing programs have shrunk, a home is often difficult to find.

But even when housing is found, the most successful programs for the homeless are those that offer a range of services. Help for the mentally ill should include guidance in independent living. Homeless families may need special education for children and their parents. Health care for the homeless is often inadequate or nonexistent.

But intensive, multifaceted programs take time and money. So the question arises, where will the initiative and money come from? Or will emergency needs be so pressing that long-range planning is put on a back burner?

Some of the most effective help is coming from nonprofit groups at the local level.

Helen Toro smiles as she explains the work she does in the mail room at Altro Health and Rehabilitation Services Inc. in the Bronx.

``I'm learning how to get back my work skills,'' says Ms. Toro, who has spent time in a mental institution in New York. Now she is gearing herself for independence, through job training, and by living at ARCH (Altro Riveredge Community House). She hopes to move to a shared apartment in several months.

About these ads

But the specter of homelessness is not unknown to Toro. She had previously lived with a sister but was told to find her own place after hospitalization.

``I didn't have anywhere to go,'' says Toro, who was referred to Altro by her doctor. Altro raises some 60 percent of its budget from sales and services provided by its workshops, over 30 percent from government grants and fees, and the rest from contributions.

There are many critics of the federal government's response to homelessness. But others, like S. Anna Kondratas of the Heritage Foundation, defend federal action. She says the federal government spends far more than states, through community development block grants and financing of shelters under the Federal Emergency Management Act.

Others reply that federal cuts in housing programs are devastating. Upcoming budget cuts will eliminate some $70 million in help for the homeless, these critics say. But most supporters of increased public funding do not want the federal government to be bureaucratically responsible for homeless programs.

Rep. Mike Lowry (D) of Washington says the federal government should shoulder a shared responsibility. In response to a comment by budget director James C. Miller III that the homeless are not a federal, but a state and local responsibility, Representative Lowry says that local governments are not financially able to meet those needs. He also says that aid to the homeless requires federal participation to ensure uniformity of aid state by state.

Lowry has proposed a national endowment for the homeless, in which the federal government would match funding from states and localities. All operations and decisionmaking would be done at the local level.

``It would not be a program run out of [Housing and Urban Development],'' he says. Indeed, in its response to homelessness, HUD has emphasized private-sector action. As part of the United Nations International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, HUD has created a model project awards program entitled ``Housing America: Freeing the Spirit of Enterprise.''

State and local governments are busy with their own initiatives. In Seattle, 35 public-housing units are used as transitional housing for homeless families. City funds are also being used to convert buildings to housing (with complete services) for the mentally ill and those with low incomes.

In Los Angeles, the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Housing Corporation, funded in part by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, has been buying and renovating SROs in the skid-row area. Some will be specialized for women or for alcoholics. One building will have a large community kitchen for the tenants. Andy Raubeson, director of SRO Housing, initiated a similar project in Portland, Ore., and found that tenants used it as a social gathering spot.

``I don't want to be romantic about SROs, but they can be a housing of choice,'' says Mr. Raubeson, who notes that some individuals might not want to maintain a large apartment. ``A well-run SRO can be better.''

But housing is not the only issue. Many of the homeless need intensive services to bring them back into the mainstream of the community. In addition to little or no income, many of the homeless have few skills and little experience in coping with everyday life.

In Memphis, Calvary Episcopal Church offers counseling to the homeless.

``If we really believe Christ is a man for others, then we need to be a church for others,'' says Calvary's Rev. Douglas Bailey. The church sees about 40 people a day, offering them everything from coffee and sandwiches to help in getting shelter or job training.

``A majority of these people are not very skilled socially,'' says Willie Henry, a counselor on loan to Calvary from the community mental-health system.

At Calvary, Nate Rice sits and talks to a volunteer about finding a place to stay and a job. He recently arrived in Memphis from Minnesota, ready for a new start. He is wary of spending too much time without work.

``If I'm not careful, I could get in the same rut [as others in the shelters],'' says Mr. Rice, adding that staying in the shelters makes one feel ``sort of depleted.''

A number of ``transition'' shelters are operating throughout the country, aimed at helping the homeless gain the confidence and stability needed to rejoin the mainstream of society. In Los Angeles, the Skid Row Development Corporation runs ``Transition House,'' which has a pleasant dorm-like atmosphere and 130 beds. Each resident gets drawers, a locker, and closet space. Meals are served, and all the maintenance, kitchen, and desk work is done by the residents. These skills can be an asset in job-hunting. The program at the shelter includes such services as Alcoholics Anonymous and mental health counseling. Nine counselors are on the staff to help residents work toward earning a stable income.

In New York, the Hope Program offers intensive job preparation training and placement for homeless men and women. Ann Marie Rousseau, the program's director, says that after two years 88 percent of the program graduates still have jobs.

But even with optimal conditions in shelters and help with services, activities taken for granted by most Americans are out of reach for the homeless. A night at a nice shelter, like Sacred Heart in Seattle, means little privacy for families like Melinda, Wade, and their daughter Tiffany. In the morning, bathroom time must be shared by nearly 20 other people. Melinda and Wade have had marital problems, but were back together in January after a separation. Melinda helps Wade, who is in a federal Work Incentive Program, study for his high school equivalancy diploma. They plan to apply for welfare while they stay at Sacred Heart, so they can save money for housing.

Many advocates for the homeless say that the current welfare system, while offering emergency aid, often ends up hurting more than helping. Grants from Aid to Families with Dependent Children are, for example, sometimes insufficient to pay for housing. In New York City, a grant of around $280 for a family of five sometimes means that families use part of their food allowance to pay rent.

People are spending 50 to 60 percent of their income on housing, says Chester Hartman at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

He adds, ``And once you fall out of the housing market, it is hard to get back in.''

Gary L. Blasi, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles agrees, saying, ``They make it so hard to get a hand on the rung that people become dependent [on welfare].'' He says the denial rate for general assistance in California is nearly 60 percent. He charges that this kind of ``cost avoidance'' ends up costing more. ``How much does it cost when a homeless person is mugged or gets sick and ends up in the emergency room?''

Mr. Blasi and others have used the legal system to help the homeless. But even this is a limited approach, Blasi admits. Judges will never supplant politicians and community leaders in crafting a new system for helping the homeless, he adds.

But the law can be used in other ways. In Santa Barbara, an ordinance banning sleeping outdoors, in public, has been described as an attack on the homeless. A challenge has been forwarded to the US Supreme Court.

While much of the response to homelessness is directed to emergency needs, some of the best impetus for long-range planning has come out of initiatives from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which specializes in health care issues. As a result of challenge grants from the foundation, 18 American cities are building a health-care system for the homeless, based on coalitions from the public and private sectors. These clinics are found in soup kitchens and shelters, as mobile units, and in hospitals near shelters.

But the problems faced by cities are still immense. For example, Gid Smith, director of the Metropolitan Inter-faith Association in Memphis, observes that, even though the government and medical community are reasonably responsive, there is simply not an abundance of resources to work with.

``At a time when local communities determine the quality of life of the poor, one wonders about the disparities that will develop as the federal government cuts programs,'' says Mr. Smith. He foresees uneven responses because some have more resources than others.

``We can do and do and do, but if we can't help these people get jobs and make some changes in their lives, we're just spinning our wheels,'' says Peggy Edmiston of Shelby County (Tenn.) Community Services.

Last of four articles. Earlier stories ran on Feb. 24, 25, 26.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.