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Liberty: Solutions--Solving the tenacious problem of homelessness

by Marc Brands Liberty Wednesday, Jul. 30, 2003 at 11:01 PM

Libertarians have SOLVED homelessness! Just eliminate all zoning laws, land-use regulations, growth-control measures, and building codes that increse housing costs -- but don't be surprised when your matchstick house collapses in an earthquake or becomes poisoned by the chemical factory next-door -- "Live and let live"

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


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


"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


"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


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"


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.


Source: LP News


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