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Solving the tenacious problem of homelessness

by The Libertarian Party Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 3:15 PM

The Libertarian Party thinks it has the answer the homeless are in dire need of: elimination of all zoning laws, land-use regulations, growth-control measures, building codes, and rent control laws.

Solving the tenacious problem of homelessness

The Libertarian Party, May 2003

For socialists and other critics of America, they are a damning indictment of "cold-hearted" capitalism.

For liberals, they are an argument for an expanded government safety net and more government-financed housing.

For most Americans, they are an object of pity and fear, or the cause of a sense of "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I" gratitude.

They are the homeless -- the ragged army of men and women who camp out on heating grates, sleep in doorways, push overloaded shopping carts, and beg for spare change in America's cities and towns.

For the past two decades, they have been a rallying point for politicians and activists who held them up as a symbol of the failure of the free market and voluntary charity.

Dog-eat-dog capitalism, greedy landlords, and a public suffering from "compassion fatigue" cause homelessness, we are told -- and only government can solve it.

Oh really? According to Philip Mangano, who serves on the federal Homelessness Council, the federal government has spent billion over 20 years and helped fund 40,000 separate initiatives to help the homeless. In 2002, there were 14 major federal programs -- costing .2 billion a year -- dedicated to helping homeless persons.

According to the Urban Institute, there were approximately 120,000 shelter beds available in U.S. cities in 1987. By 1997, that number had doubled, reported the National Coalition for the Homeless.

And cities around the USA have launched dozens of ambitious plans to help the homeless, ranging from the merely expensive to the absurd. In 1999, for example, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown advocated giving homeless beggars battery-powered machines to allow them to accept donations via Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.

Despite all this, homelessness seems to be getting worse, according to a December 2002 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In fact, there was a 19% increase in requests for emergency shelter between 2001 and 2002 alone.

But before we can cure homelessness, we first need to understand it -- and be able to answer the question: How many homeless Americans are there?

The answer: Nobody really knows.

In the mid-1980s, for example, homelessness advocate Mitch Snyder claimed there were 3 million homeless people. However, as Thomas Sowell wrote in the Washington Times (July 3, 2001), "Only belatedly did some major media figure actually confront Mitch Snyder and ask the source of his statistic. Mr. Snyder then admitted that it was something he made up, in order to satisfy media inquiries."

Despite that, the 3 million figure has been widely touted for the past two decades. In fact, upping the ante a bit, the Urban Institute now claims there are about 3.5 million homeless people in America.

The actual number seems far more modest. In 1990, the Census Bureau undertook a special one-night count of the homeless and came up with a figure of 230,000 (later revised upward slightly to 240,00). In 2001, columnist Brent Bozell reported that two "national surveys have pegged the total figure at between 200,000 and 500,000."

There is also disagreement about what causes homelessness. However, according to many experts, the modern problem of homelessness seems to owe its origin to several unconnected -- yet hugely influential -- actions by the government in the 1960s and '70s.

* In the 1960s, a "deinstitutionaliaztion" movement swept through the mental health field, and hundreds of thousands of mildly to severely mentally ill patients were released from forced confinement.

As a result, "patient totals at state mental hospitals plummeted from 550,000 to 110,000, and tens of thousands of the disabled ended up on the streets," reported Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992).

* At about the same time, federal urban renewal programs devastated the old rooming homes and single room occupancy (SRO) hotels that used to dot the inner cities and shelter the transient poor at very low cost.

"Urban renewal and stronger housing code enforcement contributed to demolition or upgrading," reported John M. Watkins in Explorations (March-April 1998). "The number of people living in such units dropped from 640,000 in 1960 to 137,000 in 1990."

* The United States went to war in Vietnam. For reasons that are not fully understood, veterans make up a disproportionate number of the homeless. The National Coalition for the Homeless says 40% of homeless men are veterans, even though veterans make up only 34% of the general adult male population.

Equally important, there was an important change in language to describe people without homes -- and a major shift in public opinion about how they were viewed.

According to Andrew Peyton Thomas (writing in the Weekly Standard, April 8, 1996), the concept of "homelessness" is relatively new. Traditionally, he wrote, Americans "referred to such people as 'hobos' and 'tramps.' "

However, in the early 1980s, social service activists began a campaign to publicize the homeless as "people just like us" who were suffering from a lethal mix of Reaganonomics, capitalism, high rents, and bad luck.

"Their plight was said to be a social injustice stemming from unkind federal budget cuts and, more broadly, the energized capitalism of the eighties," wrote Thomas. The homeless were described as "ordinary people who had suffered temporary financial misfortune."

However, that doesn't seem to be the case. Instead of being "people just like us," the homeless are disproportionately people suffering from drugs, alcohol, and insanity.

According to the Independent Institute's Andy Bane, fully "60% to 80% of the homeless are substance abusers or mentally ill."

Other studies concur. The U.S. Conference of Mayors (2001), says that approximately 22% of homeless adults suffer from some form of severe mental illness, and 34% are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And a 1982 Cuomo Commission found that 80% of New York's homeless tested positive for illegal drugs.

(Interestingly, those numbers seem fairly stable through history. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky reported that an 1827 study found that "three-fourths to nine-tenths of the paupers" in six major American cities "may attribute their degradation to the vice of intemperance.")

What this means, wrote Bane, is that most "people are not homeless because they are poor, or lack housing options. They are homeless primarily because they suffer from mental illnesses that impede their ability to seek help or to help themselves. [Or] because their addictions cause them to spend all their resources supporting their habits."

Meanwhile, only 20-40% are homeless due to economic deprivation, and, of those, perhaps 10% to 20% are poor families with children.

So, any program to help the homeless actually needs to be two programs: One that helps the small number of working poor who have been priced out of the housing market (the "temporary" homeless), and one that helps the mentally ill and substance abuses for whom homelessness is a symptom of a more severe problem (the "hardcore" homeless).

Here are some proposals that would tackle both aspects of the homelessness problem:

* Repeal all laws that make it illegal to feed or help the homeless.

Wait a second -- it can't be wrong to give food to a homeless person, can it? In fact, it's a crime in an increasing number of locations.

For example, in San Francisco from 1993 to 1995, police arrested more than 700 people for feeding the poor without a permit, in violation of a city ordinance. One anti-homelessness activist was given a 60-day jail sentence for distributing soup and bagels to poor people.

In 2000, the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon was ordered by city officials to shut down a meals program for the homeless it had been running for 16 years. The program, the church was informed, violated "smart growth" laws.

And in 2003, Santa Monica, California passed an ordinance that limited feeding programs for the hungry on the grounds they they attracted unwanted homeless people.

Politicians have been remarkably unsuccessful at solving the problem of homelessness. Given that, they should not make it a crime for Americans to try to succeed there they have failed.

* Eliminate all zoning laws, land-use regulations, growth-control measures, and building codes that drive up the price of housing.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing found that local and state regulations added ,000 to ,000 to the price of an average home in southern California; boosted by 25% the cost of a house in New Jersey; and raised by ,000 the price of a dwelling in the Chicago suburbs.

These regulations don't harm the homeless by keeping them out of expensive houses; they couldn't afford a new home even without the regulations. However, in The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies (1990), William F. Tucker noted that such regulations reduce the number of families that can afford to move into new homes -- which means that fewer vacant apartments "filter down" to lower economic groups.

Thus, government regulations directly reduce the total amount of available housing -- and price lower-income families out of the housing market.

Regulations also cause harm in other ways. In The Death of Common Sense (1994), Philip K. Howard told how Mother Teresa wanted to renovate an abandoned building in New York to house the homeless. However, the city government informed her that the city's building code required her to install an elevator. Unable to afford the extra 0,000 cost, Mother Teresa abandoned the project.

* Repeal all rent-control laws.

Almost 200 local jurisdictions, encompassing about 10% of the nation's rental housing, impose some system of rent control, according a 1991 report by Carl F. Horowitz, Ph.D for the Heritage Foundation.

In a study for the Cato Institute -- "How Rent Control Drives Out Affordable Housing" -- William Tucker found that rents for "available apartments in rent-regulated cities are dramatically higher than they are in cities without rent control. Inhabitants in cities without rent control have a far easier time finding moderately priced rental units than do inhabitants in rent-controlled cities."

It's no coincidence, he argued, that cities with the most restrictive rent control laws -- such as San Francisco and New York -- seem to have the largest homeless populations. That's why, he wrote, "Higher rates of homelessness are a manifestation of rent control."

* Phase out government programs and turn the care of the homeless over to private charities -- which tend to do a better job of curing the root causes of homelessness.

In Denver, Colorado, for example, Step 13 is a program founded by four homeless men.

"Step 13 works to solve the problems of the addicted homeless through a program of tough love, sobriety, and work," wrote Andy Bane for the Independent Institute (1991).

To participate in Step 13, clients are required to take antabuse (a drug that makes you nauseous if you drink alcohol); work, actively seek work, or attend school; attend drug and alcohol education meetings; and pay monthly rent to stay at Step 13 facilities.

"You can't hold their hands," explained Step 13 Executive Director Robert Cote. "You've got to rebuild them from the ground up by making them do what they're capable of doing: sobering up and working. This is the only way to help them to turn their lives around."

In Washington, DC, the Gospel Rescue Ministries operates from a converted crack house in Chinatown.

"Relying on volunteers and private contributions -- not government money -- the ministry operates a 150-man shelter, soup kitchen, food bank, and drug treatment center," wrote Michael Tanner, the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute (July 1, 1997). "The ministry addresses its clients' needs for more than food and shelter: it provides education, job placement assistance, and spiritual advice."

Like Step 13, the Gospel Rescue Ministries doesn't allow clients to get something for nothing. So, to stay at its shelter, homeless men must pay .00 a night or perform one hour of work.

The Gospel Rescue Ministries puts government programs to shame: About two-thirds of the addicts completing its drug treatment program remain drug free, reported Tanner.

"But a government-run drug treatment center just three blocks away has only a 10% success rate, although it spends nearly 20 times as much per client," he wrote.

But government programs, which offer no-questions-asked food and shelter, don't just cost more and succeed less -- they actually seem to encourage homelessness, charged psychiatrist Lawrence Schiff. How? By making it easier to be homeless.

"The greater the monetary value of the benefits ... the larger the number of people willing to consider homelessness as a viable option," he said. Since the homeless can get free accommodations at government shelters (along with free food and medical care), he said, they are "subsidized not to obtain the skills to make the sacrifices necessary to obtain [their own] housing."

Only privately run charity programs -- like Step 13 and the Gospel Rescue Ministries -- seem willing to do the hard work to actually help indigent individuals battle their personal demons and permanently lift themselves from helplessness and homelessness.


Homelessness is a complicated problem; there are no simple solutions.

But there is one thing we do know: Expecting politicians to spend or legislate the problem out of existence doesn't work.

In 1984, for example, Washington, DC residents, dismayed by the growing number of homeless, passed a "right-to-shelter" law, which made the city government responsible for providing housing for anyone who needed it.

The results were predictable. Enticed by the prospect of free housing, the number of "homeless" soared. City spending on homeless services ballooned from million to million between 1985 and 1990. In 1990, bowing to economic reality, the city council finally repealed the law.

But where government failed, freedom can succeed.

Three reforms -- encouraging "tough-love" community charities, ending laws that place barriers between compassionate people and the indigent, and eliminating government rules and regulations that drive up the cost of housing -- hold out the promise of finally putting a roof over the heads of most homeless Americans.

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 10 posted about this article.
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Wierdos lincoln Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 3:50 PM
I guess I have been hitting... Diogenes Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 3:56 PM
this one got me Sheepdog Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 4:08 PM
Actually... fresca Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 4:10 PM
Logical Fallacy debate coach Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 4:54 PM
If the Libertarian Party is so concerned... daveman Wednesday, May. 21, 2003 at 10:12 PM
Caring Does Not require Force. Diogenes Thursday, May. 22, 2003 at 3:01 AM
Good movie Sheepdog Thursday, May. 22, 2003 at 11:05 AM
gov't out brigg Thursday, May. 22, 2003 at 11:24 AM
You head is in the clouds pro-human Thursday, May. 22, 2003 at 9:27 PM

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