Amy Roost: Focus on how to prevent homelessness

By Amy Roost

Dick Lyles points out that there are numerous shelters in the region, operated by charitable organizations doing a very good job in assisting the homeless in our region. I agree that there is a need for that charitable assistance.

Amy Roost

However, the problem of homelessness has not been entirely solved. An estimated 10,000 people are homeless in San Diego County. About 40 percent are unsheltered (living in the streets, cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation). Approximately 25 percent are veterans and about 40 percent are made up of families. Three out of four children in those families are elementary school age.

Based on these facts, most reasonable people would conclude that homelessness is a problem in search of a better solution. Dick looks to private charities for answers. However, many of these organizations are so heavily dependent on government assistance in the form of grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for example, that they’d have to close their doors if that assistance evaporated. There are many organizations, governmental and non-governmental, that are involved in helping the homeless and were it not for funding and oversight functions provided by various government agencies, there would be a great many cracks in the system and a wasteful duplication of effort.

Perhaps a more important issue than sheltering the homeless is how can we prevent it in the first place? The good news is that progress is being made on that front. Despite our economic downturn, homelessness has decreased by 1 percent from 2009 to 2011. The National Alliance to End Homelessness attributes this decrease to innovative, federally funded approaches, such as the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), initiated in January 2010 with recession-related homelessness prevention as its primary focus. The program has assisted more than one million people to date.

There is even a means by which the government could reduce homelessness while saving taxpayer dollars. It could decriminalize drugs. California was incarcerating nearly 25,000 drug offenders at the end of 2010. Of those, a third were being held only for simple possession of a controlled substance. Another 1,401 were being held for marijuana-specific felonies. Over the course of a year, the odds of homelessness for a person discharged from prison, are 1 in 13. They have difficulty finding work, leading to a downward spiral that often results in homelessness. If we treated drug addiction as a disease instead of a crime, like we do alcoholism, this scenario would look much different.

Another way to prevent homelessness is to raise the minimum wage. The average real income of the working poor was $9,400 in 2010. However, there’s not a single county in the nation where a family with that income could afford fair market rent for a one-bedroom unit. The number of poor households that pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent increased 22 percent from 2007 to 2010. At the same time the family that owns Wal-Mart has more wealth than the combined bottom 40 percent of wage earners. As part of its profit-maximizing strategy, Wal-Mart trains its part-time employees how to apply for Medicaid and food stamps rather than paying higher wages. What’s wrong with this picture?

The cost of doing nothing further about homelessness is high. The chronically homeless put a strain on medical, emergency and police services at a high cost to our community, estimated at $1.5 million. The economic cost while dear, is nothing compared to the cost of homelessness to our human dignity, both for the victims and for those of us who sit idly by, while saying we’re doing everything we can. We’re not. I believe a private/public partnership needs to work a lot smarter and be more innovative in assisting the homeless. Denial doesn’t solve the problem nor end the despair. As Al Gore says regarding climate change: “If denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, despair ain’t just a tire in the trunk.”

Roost works in the book publishing industry.

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Posted by Staff on Nov 28 2012. Filed under Columnists. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

10 Comments for “Amy Roost: Focus on how to prevent homelessness”

  1. Joe St. Lucas

    Amy, I'm having a hard time finding your source for the statistic of "average real income of the working poor was $9,400 in 2010".
    Is this a San Diego county number, California, or a national number? I did find an interesting set of reports at "" that says that households lost $2300 in purchasing power between 2010 and 2011.

  2. What we should do, according to Amy's previous column, is emulate European Socialism — which the right-wing Washington Post tells us in today's edition just hit a new high in unemployment. The 17 nations of the Euro just hit 11.7%.

    Hey, raising the unemployment rate to European standards would certainly impact homelessness (negatively), wouldn't it, Amy?

  3. Amy Roost

    What do you say we move on Allen?

  4. O.K. if you have set aside the support of European Socialism, I will also — I just suspect you only want me to set aside my attacking it…

    But, on the subject of homelessness, it was more than 20 years ago in this community, writing in the the RB News which was subsequently bought by this newspaper I too approached the subject of the homeless. I did research and in city after city where internet information was available, there were seven homeless (plus or minus) in every city for each church in that city.

    I wrote of this in a column and proposed that churches, many of whom have unused heated and A/C, space sitting vacant six and a half days and seven nights a week — plus kitchens, bathrooms, and great unused classroom space. Churches also have huge congregations, with barbers, employers, counselors, clothiers, medical specialists, etc. all of whom who are ORDERED by their leader, Jesus, to take care of the poor!

    For my insulting suggestion, Rancho Bernardo churches threatened my then Editor with canceling their advertising, and the Pastor of a huge church invited me lunch to "find out where your head is."

    Subsequently, and no thanks to my seldom-read column in one small corner of the nation, churches have stepped forward, but at the time there was also pushback in my then newspaper from a friend. She, a member of the previously mentioned congregation, and reminded me in a Letter to the Editor that the homeless had lice, which she didn't want infesting church property.

    I (gently) reminded her that Jesus treated Lepers…

    I still believe that churches are the answer to homelessness for all the reasons cited above.

    • Amy Roost

      Always with the dualism Allen. Why does it have to be one or the other, churches or government agencies. Again, I point out that churches get a lot of faith-based funding for their social services they now provide. And I, like you, am glad they do provide. But I still think there is a role for government (funding, regulation, more sensible laws and minimum wages) both in preventing homelessness and serving the homeless.

  5. Ahhhh…because churches are tasked by their Leader, Jesus, to do just that — help the homeless. It is their DUTY, it is well within their organizational means, and it removes from the taxpayers an additional requirement?

    Seems like a win-win to me. Government can concentrate on its Constitutional requirements, and religion (in general, because almost ALL religions share the responsibility in their General Orders) can concentrate on their function to treat the poor. In this nation, Christianity is the dominate religion, and Jesus DIRECTED his followers to do it!

    Religion cannot be spread so thin as to do everything for everyone, and neither can government. Government has certain delegated responsibilities in the Constitution, but it had diluted those delegate responsibilities by taking on un-needed responsibilities (because bueaucricies by nature want to grow), and it would seem to me that government can well afford to shed itself of the responsibility for the homeless (and indeed, the poor) if churches would, simply, do their duty.

  6. Ron

    I have to agree with your synopsis, Allen.
    I had recommended the same thing years ago, although without the public appreciation. LOL
    With Gummint solutions, we end up with permenant agencies.
    Better to have individuals in social organizations handle this.

    • Amy Roost

      Ron & Allen,

      1) tell that to the social organizations and faith based organizations whose survival depends on government grants/funding.
      2) I could agree with both of you if there was enough philanthropy to go around, but there quite simply isn't. We Americans talk a good game and then go out and purchase our 52" flat screens not remembering to give to our local service orgs.

    • EducatedThinker

      Not that homelessness is in need of a permanent solution or anything.

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