Amy Roost: Focus on how to prevent homelessness

Amy Roost
Amy Roost

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.

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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