Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Jan. 19, 20 or 21
* The official 2014 poverty rate was 14.5 percent: 45.3 million Americans are poor.
* That rate was 2.0 percentage points higher than in 2007, the year the Great Recession started.
* The poverty rate for children younger than 18 was 19.9 percent in 2013, for people 18-64 13.6 percent, and for people 65 and older 9.5 percent.
* More than 578,000 Americans are homeless, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Homelessness’ causes include a lack of jobs that pay enough to make available housing affordable; a shortage of such housing; and mental, physical and financial problems ranging from psychological disorders to divorce; and poverty, period.
“Even as the recovery works its way through the entire economy, no one is immune to potentially being homeless,” said David Gaca, a District Manager for Social Security in Illinois. “People in our community –colleagues and family members, military veterans and our friends – might be too proud to ask for help. Homelessness is a complicated and emotional issue, but we can help our brothers and sisters.”
Indeed, it may seem that in the War on Poverty, we lost. Still, government programs proved effective – especially after 1964’s Economic Opportunity Act, which for 16 years made significant gains in alleviating poverty. A 2014 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Waging War on Poverty: Historical Trends in Poverty Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure,” showed the effectiveness of government’s anti-poverty policies. Further, research by the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau said, “Government household resources such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps lifted nearly 2 percent of recipients out of poverty.
“Without government programs, poverty would have risen, while with government benefits poverty has fallen,” it added.
However, dealing with homelessness has been such a struggle that some areas are resorting to other, controversial responses. According to “No Safe Place,” a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), homeless people are increasingly punished despite poverty limiting their alternatives.
“The contemporary way to criminalize homelessness was established in the 1990s in New York and San Francisco, where advisers pressed the city to clear out street people for fear they'd deter developers' investments,” reported journalist Aaron Cantu.
Criminalizing homelessness or poverty is reminiscent of the comment from 19th century writer Anatole France, who said, “The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
At least 21 U.S. communities have passed measures targeting homeless people and even those who try to help them, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), which in its new study documented cities’ bans on feeding the homeless, sleeping on sidewalks or in cars, even lining up for soup kitchens.
Cities are “criminalizing being homeless or helping the homeless," said NCH’s Michael Stoops. "Cities' hope is that restricting sharing of food will somehow make [the] homeless disappear and go away. Even if these ordinances are adopted, it's not going to get rid of homelessness."
The NLCHP lists other ordinance violations – sleeping or “camping” in public; begging in public; loitering, loafing and vagrancy; sitting or lying down in public – and concludes that criminalization “violates the civil and human rights of homeless people.”
In the Midwest, for instance, Davenport, Iowa, words its sleeping restrictions a “misuse of park property”; Evanston, Ill., has bans on panhandling, loitering and – through “health and sanitary provisions” –sleeping in public; South Bend, Ind., also prohibits panhandling, plus loitering at bus or railroad stations, all according to NCH’s report “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.”
Such a law enforcement approach is expensive, which leads to a solution that may seem obvious: housing. Salt Lake City had been spending about $20,000 per homeless resident per year – paying for policing, arrests, jail time, shelter and emergency services. Homelessness didn’t fall, so for $7,800 a year through a new program, “Housing First,” Salt Lake City started providing people with apartments and case management services, and chronic homelessness declined more than 70 percent.
That’s a welcome, warm and sensible response to a cold crisis.
[PICTURED: Photo from thestreetspirit.org.]