ACKNOWLEDGING the complexity of problems among homeless people, the Clinton administration has proposed a $1.7 billion solution aimed at cutting the number of homeless by one-third.
With a ``continuum of care'' approach, the administration wants to meet the housing needs of the homeless and provide specialized social and health services.
For years the stereotype of the homeless in the United States was a disheveled man standing on a street corner with his hand out, or waiting bleary-eyed in line at a soup kitchen.
But over the last decade, jobless parents with children, divorced women, able-bodied veterans, the mentally ill, and many elderly became homeless as a result of roller-coaster economic and social changes. Also affordable housing became scarce. Add to this the men and women with persistent drug and alcohol problems. In 1987, the Urban Institute estimated that some 600,000 Americans were homeless, although an accurate count of the homeless in the US today remains difficult.
According to US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Henry Cisneros, in announcing the new Clinton plan last week, ``as many as 7 million people may have been homeless some time in any five year period.'' The administration plan, breaking from the concept of homelessness as primarily an ``emergency'' problem, would have local governments, federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and shelters bring a coordinated effort to the problem.
But many cities, disturbed by the growing aggressiveness of some homeless, adopted anti-loitering laws. These cities include Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
``People saw the homeless as temporary when it really began in the recession years of the Reagan years,'' says Bill Ayres, director of World Hunger Year in New York. ``Millions of people reached out with shelters and food banks, but after a few years the homeless didn't go away. Now you hear about `compassion fatigue,' and that the homeless are a nuisance.''
As people from all walks of life became homeless for short periods of time, the problem of chronic homelessness became more visible. Some cities changed zoning laws to bar new shelters, and did sweeps of downtown areas to remove the homeless.
``What the cities have done,'' says Jim Stewart, director of a homeless shelter for men in Cambridge, Mass., ``is to criminalize individuals engaging in an activity which is essentially begging for mercy. People can be aggressive in this, but we already have existing ordinances, so it is a disgrace to criminalize these people to salve our conscience.''
The Clinton plan would utilize about $900 million from HUD, putting funds into locally run programs, and ask Congress for approval of funds tripling the amount spent on the homeless in the last year of the Bush administration. The plan, to be coordinated by the federal Interagency Council on the Homeless, would link 17 agencies in the effort.
Some of those who deal with the homeless advocate integrated services and ``early intervention'' to prevent homelessness, but not at the sacrifice of housing. Because the homeless have multiple problems, Mr. Ayres says, ``you try to fund groups that can provide as many services as possible in one place.''
``A lot of health care services doesn't mean anything if you don't have a base to operate from,'' Mr. Stewart says. ``You can't address your problems from the back of a car or a cot in the basement of a church. Shoveling money into shelters and health care does little to get people out of emergencies. It doesn't address the things that precipitate homelessness.''