“Not Your Everyday Homeless Proposal” is an essay included in a college textbook, “Reading Critically, Writing Well,” and was originally published by Outcry Magazine, in 2006.
I worked with children of homeless families for 20 years and saw the terrible suffering of innocent children, punished for the failings of the parents. I sent this essay to dozens of elected and appointed officials, as well as not-for-profit agencies. I received two letters in reply thanking me for my interest in the homeless. The inabiliy to explore new initiatives to deal with homelessness condemns children to be victims of a heartless system.
Not Your Everyday Homeless Proposal
by Gary Beck
Homelessness has become a persistent problem in urban environments and multiplies rapidly in the periods of economic downturn that follow cycles of prosperity. InNew York City, for example, recognized by some as the homeless capitol of the world, the dim economic forecast through at least the year 2007 makes it exceedingly improbable that there will be additional funds to alleviate the resurgent homeless situation. Families with children are entering the homeless system in record numbers that have surpassed even the dreadful surge of homelessness during the Koch administration in the 1980’s. Regardless of the reasons that homeless families enter the shelter system, they should be accorded the highest priority of attention, because children are the group most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of homelessness. There is a moral and constitutional duty to insure that homeless children, who are the victims rather than the cause of their family’s plight, will have a chance for education, happiness and an opportunity to obtain a piece of the mythical American dream.
Too often inNew York Citythere is an ongoing struggle between not-for-profit advocacy groups and the Department of Homeless Services, regarding issues related to intake, shelter and services for the homeless. Without the efforts of the non-government organizations the shelter system would be in even more dismal shape. Not every city has a staunch defender of the rights of the homeless like Justice Helen E. Freedman of the New York State Supreme Court. She has played a major role in shaping the city’s policies for the homeless, with particular concern for the treatment of families with children. Despite all efforts by government and the private sector, the situation of the homeless remains perilous. SuccessiveNew York Cityadministrations have continued to house homeless families in deteriorated and dangerous welfare hotels and motels, rife with drugs, prostitution and violence, that are the children’s learning curricula in these unchartered crime academys.
Since it is an acknowledged fact that cities cannot afford to build a sufficiency of low-income housing with concomitant support services for the homeless, other options should be explored. ANew York Cityproposal to house the homeless in an abandoned prison showed a typical government insensitivity to this population group. If the city first announced that they planned to convert the facility to a suitable residential structure, it might have been favorably received. Instead, it appeared that the government was going to put the homeless in jail. Another proposal that must have been intended to entertain the public, rather than offer a serious solution, was a plan to place homeless families on refitted cruise ships, to be anchored in New York Harbor. The New York City Commissioner of Homeless Services actually made a visit to theBahamas, purportedly to inspect unused cruise ships. The safety, security and supervisory considerations that would be necessary for shipboard dwelling should have led to instant rejection of the plan, by whomever it was first suggested to. Of course any resemblance to British prison hulks in the Revolutionary War that stored inconvenient bodies was strictly coincidental.
When the homeless problem became a major embarrassment to the Koch administration in the mid-eighties, homeless families were placed in decrepit midtownManhattanhotels, where no tourists in their right minds would have conceived of spending even one night. These hotels could not previously rent rooms for $29.00 per night. Suddenly they were billing the city $100.00 per night, for warehousing families with children in the heart of mid-townManhattan. There was no apparent government concern that the hotels were far from supermarkets, laundries, childrens playgrounds and other community services necessary for the daily functioning of families. The tiny hotel rooms, barely large enough for one person, hadn’t been painted for years. There were no cooking facilities, a frequent lack of heat in winter and often no hot water all year round. The insect and rodent infested rooms were completely inadequate to shelter families. Crime, drugs, prostitution and violence thrived in the isolated confines of an environment that was totally unsuitable for children.
The Guiliani administration in the ‘nineties’ cunningly moved much of the homeless population to hotels and motels in the outer boroughs. Yet they still paid at least as much or more for rooms, then the Koch administration had for traditionally more expensive rooms inManhattan. The Guiliani administration astutely recognized that the media would only leave the comforts ofManhattanIslandfor major stories such as murder, arson, etc. They knew there was no glamour in the outer boroughs. There was also a cynical awareness that the media would be reluctant to investigate the ongoing problems of a social group that lacks political clout, despite the human suffering, because the homeless don’t vote and consequently are not part of a constituency that has legislators to defend their interests. The homeless are represented by what has become a small but vocal not-for-profit industry, that in turn is dependent on the homeless for its existence. The relationship between the Guiliani administration and homeless advocates was frequently contentious, to the detriment of the homeless, who were in desperate need of services. The Bloomberg administration continues to house the homeless in tawdry hotels and motels at the cost of $3,500.00 to $4,500.00 per month, for rooms that most people would deem uninhabitable.
The cost of rooms to house the homeless is only part of the expenditures on this dependent population. Outrageous housing costs have been justified over the years by the assertion that designated federal funds will only pay for temporary housing. An active New York State Congressional delegation could most probably arrange a small alternate funding stream, for longer term housing solutions. Another infliction on the homeless was that the Guiliani administration rigorously enforced arbitrary rules that allowed them to exclude needy petitioners from entering the homeless system. The reason given was the administration’s fear that the working poor would flood the shelter system as a route for attaining better housing. It was beyond the capacity of the Guiliani administration to address the needs of the working poor. Therefore, a convoluted mechanism to avoid the issue was contrived; emergency funds for temporary housing only, however extravagant the cost of the rentals. We are confronted with a peculiar dysfunction when the government pays upper middle class rental rates, for accommodations below slum standards.
There are no simple solutions for this desperate situation that devours the futures of hundreds of youth annually. The real problem is society’s lack of will to urgently address an issue that should have been resolved in the 19th century; cooperation between the government and the private sector to provide solutions for the problems of the needy. There is an overwhelming need to develop innovative plans that will concentrate efforts on alleviating the burdens of homelessness on the most fragile group, families with children. One possible plan would target economically depressed communities using upstateNew York as an example, that are struggling to remain solvent and functional. This could be a model for other areas of the country. Depressed communities face a grim future, with little hope of the arrival of new industries that will replace lost blue collar and farm jobs. Certain qualifying communities could be offered a partnership with select pioneer homeless families, in a venture that could benefit both groups.
Appropriate towns that have an infrastructure of schools, transportation, medical services, grocery stores, laundromats and most important, a civic system capable of problem solving would be identified. They would be approached by designated personnel who would present a proposal that would demonstrate the economic benefits to the towns for providing residential sites and a supportive environment for designated homeless families. Abandoned property would be leased, reactivating the tax base for the towns. Renovation of the properties would stimulate local employment and generate earnings for businesses that sell construction materials and supplies. Support services for the families would develop new jobs that would infuse cash in the towns. Some jobs, after negotiations with the towns, would be reserved for the new residents. Living expenses of the families would directly contribute cash to the local economies.
Suitable families would be recruited for ‘small town pioneering’ after a careful selection and preparation process. The first requirement would be functionality. The mentally ill homeless would not be an appropriate target group. But at least 25% to 30% of homeless families are functional, many having fallen into the system because of economic disaster like loss of job, or a fire that destroyed home or apartment, etc. The benefits of small town life would be presented as a positive alternative to the stress of urban shelters and poverty communities. The families would have to be prepared to adapt to a new and unaccustomed environment. The towns would also need preparation to receive a new population group as welcome neighbors. Job development for both town residents and the newcomer families would be a priority.
The small town pioneering program would start as a pilot project. Appropriate personnel would be assigned to contact potentially qualified towns. Ten towns would be chosen to house ten families each, for a total of one hundred families. Questionnaires should be developed in cooperation with NGO’s and the Departments of Homeless Services to identify qualified families, willing to undergo a major change in their way of life. Funds required for the initial phase of the project, outreach to the designated towns and families are minimal. If funds are not available from the Department of Homeless Services, or other concerned government agencies, they would be solicited from private foundations. Once towns and families have been selected, project activities would commence simultaneously in the towns and the homeless shelters.
The towns should identify suitable residential space, preferably one- or two-family homes that have been underutilized or abandoned, that would then be renovated for habitation. Assisted living services would be identified and organized. Social workers, one per town, each to manage a caseload of ten families, would be recruited, with incentives offered to induce them to live in the community. Budgets for living expenses would be prepared. Training for the families in small town living skills would be followed by orientation tours of the intended communities. There would be introductions to the local residents: shopkeepers, teachers, town officials, neighbors, etc. The families and towns respectively should be prepared to fulfill their obligations to each other. The nearest colleges should be invited to participate in the project and provide educational services, as well as job or career training.
Funding for this demonstration program would be requested from theNew YorkStatelegislature, various federal agencies, the New York City Department of Homeless Services, the office of the Mayor of New York City, private foundations and corporations. Small town pioneering should be developed as a model program that would be replicable, after an appropriate demonstration period. The relatively low start up cost per family, as well as proportionately low operating costs, would be far less then the cost of housing a family in a temporary shelter. This would make it possible to run the program for far less than the cost to maintain a family in a shelter, which is approximately $45,000 annually, for a family of three. The savings to the taxpayer would be considerable and the benefits to both towns and families would be immense.
Concerned officials, agencies and NGO’s should consider this program as a possible amelioration to the problem of homelessness for a substantial number of families capable of rebuilding their future. This proposal is presented as only one possible solution to a major problem for which many new initiatives are needed. Other programs that could be explored might include: the development of co-operative apartment houses; an urban pioneering initiative utilizing abandoned buildings in poverty neighborhoods, for reclamation as housing stock; perhaps a more daring venture in commune/kibbutz experiments. Hopefully, these suggestions will stimulate consideration by those concerned with the future well-being of neglected members of our society, of the urgent need for new, practical solutions for the problems of homeless families with children.