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Team Up to Help the Homeless

WE can provide everyone in the United States with somewhere to live even if many of the basic causes of homelessness seem permanent. Two steps are required: adequate financing and a countrywide standard of affordable housing. The cost of personnel needed to operate community shelters is enormous and ongoing. Efforts to provide adequate shelter will founder unless based upon volunteerism.

Experience in San Francisco shows that large numbers of people are willing to volunteer a half day per month to help the homeless. Shelter residents themselves should also participate. By tapping these resources, shelters can operate with only a few paid staff.

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The construction costs for permanent community shelters are between $30,000 and $40,000 per bed for a mixture of single and double bedrooms, larger rooms for families, a communal kitchen and dining room, a small clinic, and rooms for schooling and vocational training. This cost assumes that cities already own the land, and that architects employed by the cities will design the structures and supervise their construction.

By conservative estimates, there are two million homeless persons in the US. Thus, between $60 and $80 billion is needed to build permanent shelters. This money would be distributed by the federal government to cities pro rata according to their local number of homeless people.

Can the US afford up to $80 billion for this purpose? Congress has just approved what will ultimately cost between $300 billion and $500 billion for the financial rescue of several hundred thousand citizens who otherwise would have lost about $65 billion to failed savings and loan institutions. Do two million other citizens deserve less because misfortune, drug abuse, or ill health caused both financial hardship and the loss of their homes?

The ethical issue was well-put by Richard Lamm, who wrote that ``we rush to rescue people in intensive care units today when just yesterday we abandoned them.'' (The New York Times, Aug. 2, 1989.) It is often the psychosocial consequences of being homeless that leads to the illnesses requiring intensive medical care.

Will residence in a community shelter be permanent? For some it will be a place to start over; resettlement in more orthodox housing can occur after rehabilitation from drug and alcohol abuse, treatment of other medical problems, or vocational retraining. For others, these shelters are a temporary asylum from the larger world. In such cases, residence in the community shelter will be no more permanent than residence in an orphanage, which society unquestioningly provides.

And there are many for whom the community shelter will become a permanent home. Society should regard this not as their crime but as their tragedy; our society should be judged, and undoubtedly will be by future generations, by how we treat our least fortunate.

The US must assure security to those who live in large community shelters, otherwise the residents will simply abandon the places and return to the streets or bushes. Shelter residents themselves should organize their own security arrangements, with assistance from the police.

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With enthusiastic help from community volunteers, the residents could develop pride of home in their permanent shelters. They will have to clean them, beautify them, manage the kitchens, and patrol them to ensure their own, personal safety.

A plan for large scale, permanent shelters that calls on volunteers and residents alike, and is adequately funded by local and federal government, is workable.

For our two million fellow citizens who are homeless, the time for action is now.

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