Cuomo Stumbles Over Advocate’s Questions

Commentary by Angelo Anderson

Every few years the National Coalition for the Homeless sponsors a National Summit on Homelessness. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo addresses this year’s group. During the question and answer segment following his keynote address he angered many of the attendees when he remarked that he was not convinced that welfare reform had made people homeless. Among catcalls and “boos” the Secretary had to slip out the back door of the auditorium.

What often allows politicians to make remarks such as Mr. Cuomo’s is the lack of a definition of homelessness. Defining homelessness is the most challenging of tasks. The typical way to get definitions is to use a dictionary to see how everyone else is using the word. With homelessness, this way is not available. Different people use the word in substantially different ways; often without realizing their audience is misunderstanding them.

There is no simple way of describing a homeless person, even though the term suggests that there is a single defining characteristic: being without a home. The homeless population includes single men, single women and families. The homeless are white, African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. They are refugees and aliens, parolees, runaway youth, veterans, the elderly and former hippies. They are alcoholics, drug addicts and mentally ill. Some suffer from a combination of all of these problems and many have serious medical issues. Some homeless are victims of domestic violence and others become homeless due to economic disasters or the loss of a job, over which they had no control.

Generally, the homeless man or woman is impoverished, transient, and often lacks the social skill or emotional stability needed to improve his or her situation without considerable outside help.

Homeless people are sometimes defined as those with the inability to secure regular housing when such housing is desired. Homelessness is not symbolic of extreme poverty, but is a condition of the most extreme deprivation, the absence of a place to call one’s own. Spending a night in a bus station does not qualify as homelessness, if it happens to a person on vacation. It is homelessness when a person is evicted from regular housing into a futile search for affordable housing. It is when they live for several months with friends or family members while looking for a place.

Please note, homelessness is not a problem that is limited to a particular setting or to certain types of people. Many people who are marginally housed are often termed the “hidden homeless.” The situation of the hidden homeless underscores the problem of extreme poverty and homelessness.

Advocates cultivated the use of the word “homeless” in the late 1970s intending it as a non-stigmatizing fashion of referring to the street dwelling poor and their counterparts in shelters. In the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, homelessness was used to describe nighttime:

  • · An individual who lacks a fixed a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
  • · An individual who has a primary night time residency that is supervised publicly or privately as a shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations including welfare hotels, congregate shelters and transitional housing for the mentally ill; an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or a public/private place not designed for or ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations for human beings.
  • · People who are at imminent risk of losing their housing because they are being evicted from private dwelling units or are being discharged from institutions and have nowhere else to go are usually considered homeless for program eligibility purposes.

In the United States, conservative estimates indicate that more than 1.5 million people are homeless nationwide. On the other hand, more liberal estimates indicate that as many as 3,000,000 people may be without shelter. The phenomenon of homelessness is increasing. One measure of this growth is the increase in the number of shelter beds over time. Cleveland reported in 1998 a 15% increase in requests for shelter and a 20% increase in family requests for shelter.

Most Americans seem to believe that homelessness is a new phenomenon caused by the combination of regressive governmental policies and the recession of the early 1980s. The truth is that homelessness is not new. Although they were classified or labeled differently in earlier periods of American history, there have always been homeless Americans.

Most of us look at the issue of homelessness in one of three ways:

  • · With hostile judgment
  • · With a charitable view
  • · With a liberal therapeutic view

However, homelessness is not an isolated phenomenon. The fate of homeless people is bound up in the broader economic and social trends that are reducing the standard of living of the working class and poor.

Among the homeless population some are homeless for a short period of time, some for many years and others cycle into and out of the state of homelessness.

Homelessness in the world’s most wealthy of nations is a shameful phenomenon. Across the nation individuals without enough food, clothing or housing wrestle to live-while many others enjoy multiple homes, full closets and often grossly packed kitchens.

In a nation where CEOs make 419 times the amount of the average worker and others pay as much as 80% of their income for rent-is there any reason we have homelessness?

It is my hope that over the next two years, we here at NEOCH will continue to try and put a face on homelessness by putting into practice some of the advocacy strategies and thoughts that were conceived in Washington. By doing so we hope to find better ways to represent those people on the street and in the shelters of Cleveland to the often-uneducated politicians.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 35, June 1999, Cleveland, Ohio