Editorial: Solve Homelessness—Shut Down the Shelters?

     Sometimes I think that it is time to shut down all the shelters and force the community to make some real decisions. The strong will survive and find a place to stay. After all, when sick people, children, and mentally ill people started dying on the streets America would make housing a right. Until there is a tragedy in the richest country in the world, nothing really happens. The women’s shelter is and remains deplorable. Not until the media showed the mildew on the walls with a child sleeping next to the bleach and mildew did the community respond.

     It took children disappearing in the custody of the state of Florida before something was done. Until the men testified publicly that 2100 Lakeside was nearing a riotous situation the County did not intervene. But every day these men endure the deplorable conditions of sleeping in a chair in the cafeteria. It is so common to be told to move along by the police that no homeless person blinks an eye. Demeaning, distrustful, and disgraceful treatment at the hands of staff are all part of a day’s struggle to survive for shelter residents. We cannot blame shelter workers entirely for their behavior. They are overworked, untrained, underpaid people with a big heart but little ability to address the needs of the people they see everyday. Setting aside the depression of seeing hundreds of people cast away by society, they must deal with every single problem facing our society with only the resources to provide a band-aid to their clients.

     It is shameful to recommend that people must die before something is done, but do we have any choices? In the early 1990s, it took a man dying outside of HUD before any money went from the federal government to address this crisis. They threw a few table scraps to the community and made the benches in most cities impossible for people to sleep on to avoid public deaths. America has an acceptance of slow death (smoking, alcohol abuse, sleeping outside) but fusses if the privileged class has to walk past death.

     The Governor told us that it was a tough budget this year, and so he was going to fund only the state’s priorities. I guess providing people food and shelter are not a priority in this state since the Governor completely eliminated funding to the food banks and emergency shelters for the next two years. I guarantee you that if a couple of homeless children or men with a mental illness died in the lily white suburb of Bexley, Ohio, where the Governor lives, those line items would be restored and more.

     We no longer have leaders in government, but a ruling class of money and ego serving out their terms in positions of power. It is almost a community service for the rich to figure out ways to lower their own taxes and eliminate barriers for capitalism. Our elected officials (and unelected officials in the case of the officeholder at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) have little contact with homeless people except on Thanksgiving for a photo opportunity. They manage our problems for their term of office hoping the crisis does not occur on their watch. Our social service providers allow elected officials to get the photo op. as long as they are provided just enough money to keep their program alive but not enough to make any changes.

     There is no original thinking in government. They keep the same programs in business because those are the ones that do not make waves. If these programs were real services they would be leading the charge in the overthrow of the current government. Social workers true to their license would renounce the existing structure and file a claim with the United Nations over the mistreatment of the poor within our borders. The social services would demand the same amount of money spent on tax breaks for property owners going to the poor who rent or live in shelters in a just society. Shelter directors would shut down the cities until the media did stories about the suffering in our neighborhoods and thus end the media conglomerate’s fetish with sex, scandal, and blood masquerading as news. No one would disagree that those working with homeless people are full of compassion, but where are the people of conscience today?

     If we really want a strong terror proof country, end poverty in the world. Start with the United States and provide a decent education for every American, guarantee them a livable income, free health care, and appropriate housing. This would be a truly free society above fear with a rock solid healthy citizenry immune to the shallow hate mongering, racist philosophy we find staring down the dawn of the 21st century. We would no longer need to demonize poor people or be grudge them the spare change we currently offer in programs called Medicaid, TANF, or Public Housing.

     So I will continue to fight to assure that homeless people do not die in the streets. I will assist in the best management of the problem while trying to get people to think of solutions. I will be the lone voice in calling for an end to the madness of permanently sheltering people in our urban cities. I will raise an indignant voice at the sight of low-income security guards and law enforcement mistreating low-income wanderers. And I will express the constant frustration heard within the shelters among homeless people that housing is out of reach while stadiums are a necessity.

Copyright The Homeless Grapevine Issue 59, February-March 2003, Cleveland, Ohio