By Vilma Latalladi
Ms. VanderbyNovember, 1998
On a chilly February afternoon, an old man sits sleeping on the sidewalk outside a New York hotel while the lunchtime crowd shuffles by. At the man’s feet is a sign, which reads: “Won’t you help me? I’m cold and homeless and lonely. God bless You” (Chambers 11). Imagine, if you can, the life this man leads.
He probably spends his days alone on the street begging for handouts, and his nights searing for shelter from the cold. He has no job, no friends, and nowhere to turn. Although most Americans would like to believe that cases like this are rare, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that as many as three million citizens of our country share this man’s lifestyle (Tucker 34). Who are these people we call “the homeless,” and what are the reasons for their predicament?
According to Pastor Walker, the director of the Gospel Missions Shelter in Sioux City, Iowa, most of the homeless are unemployed males, and from 40 to 50 percent have alcohol or drug-related problems. Walker also points out, however, that the image of the “typical” homeless person is changing. He says, for instance, that the average age of the homeless has dropped from fifty-five to thirty in the last ten years (Walker interview).
National students also show that America’s homeless population is changing. A recent study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, found that one-third of the homeless population consists of families with small children, and 22 percent of the homeless have full- or part-time jobs (Mathews 57). Statistics seem to show that more and more of the homeless are entire families who have simply become the victims of economic hardship.
Why are these people still on the streets, despite the billions of dollars that are spent on the homeless each year? Some blame the national housing shortage, pointing out that there are not enough homes to fill the country’s need for shelter (Marcuse 426).
Further study of the problem, however, suggests that government programs and policies are more likely to blame. The current government programs fall into several categories. Some are handout programs designed to provide food or clothing to all of the needy, not just the homeless. An example of this type of program is the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, created by the federal government in 1981 to make surplus agricultural products available to those in need. Other programs, such as the experimental voucher program and the rent-control system, are intended to provide housing for low-income families that need shelter. Despite the good intentions behind these programs, however, none of them have provided sufficient help for the homeless.
Why have these programs been ineffective in cutting down on homelessness? In some cases, the answer is that the programs are not designed to fit the special needs of the homeless. It was estimated in October of 1986, for instance, that 99 percent of the food supplied by the Temporary Emergency Assistance Program had gone to those who where not homeless. The reason? As Anna Dondratas of the Department of agriculture says, “When you’re homeless, you don’t carry around a five-pound block of cheese” (qtd. In Whitman 34). Food programs like these are valuable only to those who already have a place to store and prepare the food they are given. The homeless, therefore, are unable to take full advantage of these programs.
Not all programs set up to make housing available to those with low incomes have been effective, either. An example is the voucher system, a federal program created in 1983, which allows low-income families to live wherever they can find housing, regardless of cost. The only requirement is that families must pay at least 30 percent of their incomes in rent. Although this system has been successful in finding shelter for some needy families, it is not a long-term solution to homelessness. One problem is that most families who use the voucher system pay a lower percent of their income for rent than those who rent apartments on their own do. Therefore, a family could “raise” its income simply by becoming “homeless” (Coulson 16).
The second problem with the program is that it .