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Homeless: Myths, Realities and Remedies

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Realities and Remedies

by Morris Sullivan

illustrations/Eachean Edmundson

WHEN WE THINK OF HOMELESS PEOPLE, most of us envision those who have slipped permanently off the edge of society--the old lady pushing her bag-laden shopping cart, the career-transient living in the woods, or the panhandling wino who sleeps on a park bench. Myths about the homeless abound--they're all mentally ill, released from institutions and unable to live in a normal society; they prefer not to work, so they live on the streets; they're drug-addicted or alcoholic.

While some of the homeless do match these stereotypes, a far greater number don't. In fact, at some point in their lives, one out of fifteen readers of this story will find themselves homeless--either living on the streets, in a shelter, or sleeping on a friend's floor. Many of us live one paycheck away from eviction, and many more barely cover our living expenses even with the money we earn in forty and fifty hours on the job each week. Trends in wages and housing costs indicate that you'll have a one in ten chance of finding yourself without a roof over your head by the end of the century.

Estimating the number of homeless people in a community is tough, for a number of reasons. They tend not to fill out census forms, and it's hard to count the number of people sleeping in doorways and on park benches. One of the most common ways to measure the number of homeless people consists of counting the number of beds in homeless shelters and how many people occupy those beds over a given period. Of course, this method leaves out all those who live in their cars, in the woods, on the streets, or on the floors of friends and family.

There are also two other methods of measuring the number of homeless: point-in-time counts, which measure the number of people living without a home at a specific time, and period prevalence counts, which measure the number of people who end up homeless over a period of time. Period prevalence counts probably gauge the problem more accurately, because for most homeless people, the condition is temporary. For many of those, the problem recurs; they're not permanently homeless, but chronically homeless.

ONE MISPERCEPTION ABOUT HOMELESSNESS is that it is linked to crime. The days of laws against vagrancy--which made homelessness itself a crime--have for the most part been legislated out of existence. The 1987 McKinney Homeless Assistance Act recognized the civil rights of homeless people, including the right to sleep in public if there is no other place available. The stereotypes of the homeless, however, still encourage a "not in my back yard" attitude toward shelters.

Commander Steve Jones, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, says "I don't know of any particular crimes directly related to homelessness. Most homeless people just want to live and not be bothered by other people. In our experience, crimes committed by homeless people are usually committed against other homeless people, like battery on and victimization of each other. For instance, one will say something that makes another mad, and they start to fight.

He believes that "when it comes to homeless families, there are never enough beds--never enough shelters. But a lot of people would rather live in the woods than in a shelter. I've talked to people that would rather live in their own shelter. They just want to live without worrying about taxes and going to work.

"We pretty much leave them alone," he adds. "We don't stop them from sleeping in public, unless we get a complaint. If a homeowner or business owner calls, we'll move them off the property, but otherwise--as long as they're not violating the laws--we try not to inconvenience them."

WHILE, AS JONES SAYS, some homeless people prefer not to work, most are looking for employment and many are already working. In 1994, a study of the problem in Virginia revealed that 48 percent of those entering homeless shelters were working, 35 percent of them fulltime. At the same time, many of these people were earning less than $6 per hour; the market rent to afford an apartment in the state required an hourly wage of over twice that figure.

The link between increasing poverty and increased homelessness is undeniable. Many of the people in our society simply can't afford rent. The number of low-income apartments and single-occupancy residences (rooms in "boarding houses," which used to be the staple residence for people needing a place to stay while recovering from job-loss or other personal catastrophe) has dwindled to virtually zero.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1970 and 1988, the number of poor people in America increased 26 percent, from 25.4 million to almost 32 million. By 1996, the number had increased another 14 percent to 36.5 million. Over one-third of these people live in extreme poverty with incomes less than half the poverty level, and 40 percent of them are children.

Michelle Hickey, spokesperson for Safehouse of Seminole, says that homelessness is "a big problem--period. It's been there for a long time. Most of us think it's related to some inner defect, but it's really about poverty. Since there's an increasing poverty problem, it's just getting worse."

EVIDENCE SUPPORTING HER ASSERTION can be found in the increasing demand for shelter beds. In Boston and Los Angeles, for example, the number of beds increased by more than 250 percent in the last 10 years. Still, the number of homeless seeking shelter far exceeds the number of beds available. For example, the city of Los Angeles estimates that for every available bed, there are five or more people in need of shelter.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, more and more of the homeless are children. In New York state, for example, half of the 140,000 people seeking shelter in 1997 were children and runaways. In Minnesota, the number of children in shelters increased 733 percent from 1985 to 1997.

Covenant House is an international organization that serves homeless youths--runaways and other "throwaway" kids. It operates a service center in Orlando that helps homeless kids by providing them a place to shower, do their laundry, get counseling, work on their GED, and provides them with referrals to other service providers. The organization is currently planning to open a shelter nearby, but its plans have been thwarted by city policymakers. An employee of the organization pointed out that "we serve a population of youth under 21, and right now there are zero beds in the city of Orlando for kids under eighteen years old. There absolutely is a compelling need for this, though, because there's no place else for them to go."

According to Paula Tibbetts, the director of public relations for Covenant House Florida, the organization was invited to Orlando by other service agencies to participate in an assessment of the needs of homeless kids in the area. "We started doing a needs assessment in the city in 1994, and doing street outreach before we opened our service center in May of '96. Our community service center is a day program, not a residential one.

"DOING THIS, IT DIDN'T take us very long to figure out that what the kids need is shelter, so we wanted to open one. We're a nonprofit organization, and there are some things we had to do first--we had to get approval from our board and raise some dollars. We got most of that in place about a year ago, and spent close to a year looking for a suitable location."

"Zoning is the biggest obstacle" to opening a shelter, says Tibbetts. "It has to be in an appropriately zoned area, and we look for a site with good proximity to the services we already provide. And of course, we look at the cost factor. The location (at the Syrian Lebanese club on Mills Avenue) is very appropriate in terms of zoning and price, and that specific location works well in terms of our service area. Right after we put the down payment on the building the issue of the moratorium came up."

One of her coworkers adds that "there's a moratorium on new shelters in the city of Orlando until they put together a committee to assess the needs. One of the reasons for that is that the city thinks they're housing all the homeless in the area--the surrounding municipalities don't 'do their share' to address the problem."

Tibbetts says that the conflict over opening the much-needed shelter comes from the city's planning code, which "set a cap on the number of RSSF (residential social service facility) beds in the city. The cap is based on a formula--you can't have more than one-half of one percent of population in RSSF's, and they were above that cap already. However, when they did the count to determine how many beds there were, they included the 500 people on the concrete in the homeless pavilions, and those aren't beds.

"THE REAL ISSUE, THOUGH," she says, "is fairness to kids--the kids who are living on the street, sleeping out in the cold." Her coworker adds, "It seems so much more harsh when you see kids on the streets than when you see adults. You see kids sleeping in doorways right on Orange Avenue--they're sleeping in doorways and under garbage bags. It can break your heart. A lot of the time, we are their only lifeline."

"At our community service center," Tibbetts says, "we work with about 25 kids a day. A number of kids we work with through our street outreach program; we have counselors who go out every night to work with kids who are living on the streets. Regardless of the issues facing our opening of a facility, we are committed to providing shelter for Orlando's street kids."

"The issue is not so much that the problem is growing," she says, "but the complications the kids face are greater and greater. Years ago, there weren't as many throwaway kids--the system would deal with that. Society said that if you didn't take responsibility for your kids it'd do something about it. Now, if the kids are younger than 15, the system might take a look at the situation, but the attitude is different when they're fifteen and older. It's like they say, 'Oh well. If your parents put you out of the house, that's just too bad.

"I think the dangers of the street are worse than they ever have been. There have always been drugs and survival sex, but the risks are higher. The drugs get deadlier; kids have gone back to LSD, for instance. And with the risk of sex, you've now got very serious sexually transmitted diseases, up to and including HIV.

"SURVIVAL SEX IS TRADING sex for a place to stay or a meal--something tangible that they need. A lot of the time, the kids don't want to view it as prostitution, but it amounts to the same thing. The longer a kid is disconnected form home, the more likely it is they'll turn to survival sex to meet their needs.

"It's not just the poor kids, either. Even if they come from middle-class families, they have precious little to begin with. Even if a kid leaves home with some designer clothes, some jewelry, and some cash, that doesn't last long. Once you've used that up, then what?"

Kids leave home for many reasons. In reports that have been done about Florida's homeless children, abuse is certainly one of the most common. Kids get tired of living in homes that are battlefields, and they get tired of being physically or sexually abused.

Tibbetts points out that "it's common that the kids come from abusive backgrounds. A high number are from single parent households and were exposed to drugs and alcohol when they were very young, which probably means their parents were substance abusers."

SAFEHOUSE'S MICHELLE HICKEY points out that "Some of these kids end up in even more abusive situations. Everyone seems more kind when you're out there on your own--these kids are living on the streets and under overpasses, and they may decide to stay with someone who's abusive because it looks safe and comfortable relative to that."

Safehouse of Seminole operates a shelter in nearby Seminole County, Florida. According to Hickey, "Safehouse operates a shelter for abused women and children who are escaping from an abusive and violent home life. We have a 40-bed facility, and we take in 400 women and children each year. Two-thirds of the people we shelter are under 21.

"We're getting a lot of referrals from Covenant House," she says. "They're a valuable resource because not only are they addressing homelessness, but also teen dating violence. A lot of these kids are escaping abusive relationships, not only at home but in their situations with their boyfriends.

"The dynamics of abuse set the stage for homelessness," she adds. "The isolation and economic abuse and interference with employment. Abusers harass their partners at work, call their employers, and prevent them from taking jobs or keeping them. So they have a very poor work record, and they have a hard time getting jobs that pay enough to live on.

"WE GOT A CALL from a 15-year-old girl who was living with an abusive boyfriend; she had two kids. The boyfriend was 21 years old, and she'd been living with him since she was 12. To us, it was a situation that looked like child abuse, but we were caught in a dilemma--we didn't know what to do since she was only 15, and not an adult, but we were determined to do something--the abuse was terrible. He'd battered her all along, even during the pregnancies. Unfortunately, she didn't call us back. I suppose her fear and isolation were greater than our outreach." •


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