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Homelessness Is Not A Crime, But It Is A Shame. So Why Don't We Get Serious About Solving It?

Romania Britain US Homeless
A homeless man eats soup.
Vadim Ghirda/AP

Anthony Miller begins each day with a look out his third-floor windows onto busy Commonwealth Avenue. To most people, his small room would be an underwhelming domicile and a symbolic failure. But those 30 or so stairs up to his flat represent more than access to a humble home. They are one huge step from the streets below, where he once lived.

After two years of residency in a homeless shelter and countless months on park benches and tent cities, Miller has achieved a modest milestone. The non-descript, simple room in Allston is more than a bed and bureau. It is independence and dignity. And Miller, who stands well over six feet tall and whose heft creaks the stairs and hallways of the rooming house, is grateful for this minor personal advancement. Tobacco has damaged his teeth and his health, but the lifetime of bad luck and poor decisions has not damaged his spirit. The room is one phase of an incremental process to rejoin society. He hopes next to score a restaurant job — handling pans instead of panhandling.

“There is a sense of personal security knowing where I’m going to sleep at night,” he said.

Miller is one of more than an estimated 550,000 people who are homeless in America on any given night. This solvable crisis is America’s shame. It persists regardless of political party or national economic climate. The “tax reform” bill passed last year by Congress and signed by President Trump could have paid to house every homeless person in the country twice over. An initiative put forth by President Obama proposed spending $6 billion in 2017 (plus an additional $11 billion over 10 years) to provide services and housing assistance for half-a-million needy families. But even if such an idea had come to fruition, it only works if the funds are easy to access.

“Most people just need one break to get moving forward,” Miller said. “I have a case manager who helped me get this room, but she also sticks with me and helps me get other services and to make a life plan. She has introduced me to a food-service training program that I will attend, hoping to get a job.”

***

The United States is the richest country in the history of the world. We have the money to solve any problem or fund any project. But without the will to do so, the problem of homelessness lingers and worsens under stigmatization and prioritization. “I don’t think anyone is doing enough. Anywhere,” said Tiziana Dearing, who is, among many other things, a professor at the Boston College School of Social Work. She believes that rebuilding America’s middle class is the grand goal for closing the profound income gap.

But steps along the way toward that goal of income equality begin on a more fundamental level. “The emphasis should be on putting people in affordable housing,” she said. As a lecturer, advocate, board member of several nonprofits, and researcher, she is as close to an expert on the subject of poverty as there is. Her blog at HuffPost often addresses local ordinances and municipal policies across America that directly and deliberately impede the assistance of the homeless. In November 2014 she wrote about the idiocy of a law in Florida that criminalized giving food to homeless people.

“We need to stop criminalizing homelessness,” she said.

Dearing said that the peddlers and paupers at the local parks and on highway off-ramps are only a small percentage of a much larger issue. “The problem,” she explained, “is that people who are not chronically homeless are hard to count.” By that she means that entire families who live in their car or an abandoned building or in a seedy motel room, are difficult to account for and thereby not included in estimates that affect budgets.

“Housing First” is a resurrected initiative in Boston. Very common during the 1970s and ’80s, the idea, based on a Canadian study, is that money is best spent by providing housing ahead of all other services. Health costs and other ancillary, temporary fixes ideally would be assuaged if only the people had a warm and safe room. “Housing First is the best way to solve the problem,” Dearing said.

Troix Bettencourt’s office sits in an old building in the center of Lowell. He sits at the center of the homeless crisis in Lowell. As senior case manager for the Institute for Health and Recovery, he interacts daily with two communities: the homeless in Lowell, and the policymakers and check-writers in Boston. If Dearing is the yin to the issue, Bettencourt is the yang.

He is the calm hub around which several wheels spin. The needs of the homeless community turn in one direction while support services elude them in another. Bettencourt is also the face and voice of the issue. His main goal is to alter public perception. And public perception in Lowell and every elsewhere is understandably pejorative. Bettencourt, who was once homeless as a teenager, sees the problem and its solution on a much more primitive level. Speaking of the people who obstruct traffic and linger outside of markets with their cardboard biographies, he says the matter has gotten worse over the past decade, particularly over the past three years.

“The problem is not that there are no services to support and assist the chronically homeless. The problem is that many of those on the streets are not connected with the system. Many don’t even have an ID,” he said. “The people most in need are those who are not plugged into the services and the only shelter in the city is a dry facility.” Addicts are not allowed to stay there except for certain months and in a designated area. So they are forced, at least in this city, to stay in cold, unsafe haunts and back-alley bivouacs. He sees the problem as rooted in addiction and mental illness, not so much employment or economics. His focus is primarily the 10 percent who represent the common image of homelessness, not the hidden majority who Dearing asserts can be helped.

Lowell actually approved an ordinance that made it illegal to panhandle near the downtown area. Bettencourt helped the ACLU file a suit against the city on behalf of three men whom they claim had their First Amendment rights violated. The ACLU won, and the city may be forced to pay a substantial punitive settlement.

“The way to solve this problem,” Bettencourt said, “is to provide mental health care for those in need, and to curb opioid addiction.” He cites a disturbing paradox of policies in Lowell. A church group was giving comfort bags to homeless people, including clean needles to shoot drugs. But the shelter would confiscate and dispose of those needles, thereby forcing addicts to share. This resulted in a steep spike in HIV cases in the city.

Many aspects of homelessness are against the law. “We need to stop making it a crime to be homeless,” he said. “Because now, on top of all the other hardships, people get saddled with a criminal record.” And HIV-positives, addicts, felons, and sex criminals are not only hard-core unemployable but are generally unacceptable in most social circles, especially with regards to habitation. No one wants those people living in their neighborhood. “They’ve got nowhere to go,” said Bettencourt.

***

So what about Anthony Miller? He has been destitute for decades but is neither a felon nor an addict. He kicks around his Allston room, having traded the misery of homelessness for the misery of boredom. “There was lots of anger and arguing,” he said of the Pine Street Inn, a long-term shelter facility in Boston where he stayed for two years. Even private boredom beats anxiety-ridden uncertainty and hostility.
But the issue is a national matter, despite the thousands of local manifestations. Annie Leomporra is a grassroots analyst for the National Coalition for the Homeless who has been involved in the cause for 46 years. She pinpoints the early catalyst for the ever-increasing population of homeless folks in America. “The pre-Reagan era had plenty of funding for affordable housing and for mental health services,” she said. She was referring to the widespread and deep cuts that then-President Reagan made at the federal level in the 1980s to several social programs and safety nets. States and municipalities were forced to assume the fiduciary burden and fill the void with valuable operating revenue. So, naturally, things got steadily worse.

“The best way to solve the problem is to eliminate the massive stigmatization that the homeless community endures,” she said. “There is this perceived notion that people want to be homeless. That is not true. The solution is a series of small building blocks, starting with humanity. We need to get people to want to help. Then we start investing in people because that always brings a great return for the dollar.”

Humanity is one of the items in Bettencourt’s toolkit. Aside from being his full-time day job, homelessness advocacy is also his off-duty activity. A few years ago he attended a barbecue at a wealthy friend’s house. He noticed that much food and other things were being wasted, so he asked the attendees to bring some items for donation to the next get-together. He dispensed those items to needy people in his orbit. Since then, the effort has grown and many other people seek him out with handfuls of everyday products.

Chandra Perry, a businesswoman who travels often, helps herself to the soaps and shampoos and other toiletries that hotels stock their bathrooms with. “They throw them away after every guest,” she said. “Even if they are unopened and unused. It seems like such a waste. So, I load them into my suitcase and give them to Troix.”

It is the small gestures that help the humanity develop and surface and spread. Sure, we need to stop making it a crime to be homeless. But even before that we need to make it less dishonorable. And it is a small paradox that those who hate the beggars, wouldn’t want to hide them from view. If they are a blight to your vista, house them.

Despite the obvious lack of consensus on how to solve the crisis, locally and nationally, there seems to be a litany of suggestions worthy of attempt. By tinkering with combinations of the remedies expressed in this piece, surely a universally acceptable cure can be found.

Scott Shurtleff wrote this story for a class in opinion journalism at Northeastern University. He received his master’s degree in journalism in April and is now a staff reporter for the Nashoba Valley Voice.


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