The Poor Among Us

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Rude Awakenings: What the Homeless Crisis Tells Us, by Richard W. White Jr., San Francisco: ICS Press, 330 pages, $24.95

In Rude Awakenings: What the Homeless Crisis Tells Us, Richard White provides a refreshingly straightforward appraisal of a much deplored and much misunderstood problem, homelessness in the United States. Reviewing a score of social-service programs and a decade of debate, White debunks two myths—that of the 3 million homeless said to haunt our city streets and the repeated claim that "Housing NOW" will make them disappear.

The first chapter, "Lying for Justice," easily one of the most powerful, traces the exploitation of the numbers. Appearing on Ted Koppel's Nightline in May 1984, Mitch Snyder, founder of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, denounced as a politically motivated undercount a study carefully conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that had estimated the number of homeless nationwide at 250,000 to 350,000. Instead he proclaimed that 1 of every 100 Americans—2 million to 3 million in all—were homeless. Although Snyder himself later said he had fabricated the number, the media publicized the figure and the advocates ran with it, sinking the HUD estimate under the waves of political outcry. National surveys by the National Bureau of Economic Research (1986) and the Urban Institute (1987) validated the HUD estimate, but the myth has proved nearly indestructible. (Just last March, Nightline cited advocate estimates of 3 million to 4 million homeless.)

The pattern of mendacity has repeated itself in the willful minimizing of alcoholism, substance abuse, mental illness, and even of criminality among the homeless. Not until Robert Hayes, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, acknowledged in 1989 the problems of alcohol and drug addiction did a more realistic picture begin to emerge. Even now it is possible to find in popular accounts echoes of the belief that the homeless are "just like us," plain folk down on their luck. The media continue to depict as the norm that rarity, the intact family of father, mother, and children, even though most homeless "families" are headed by a single mother.

How did "lying for justice" become so popular? In a later chapter, "Manufacturing a Crisis," White documents the mechanism. In the late '70s Mitch Snyder had fasted and led the homeless into Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. In 1979 Robert Hayes won a "right to shelter" for everybody in New York City. But it took Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency to make homelessness a household word. According to White, antipoverty bureaucrats and their supporters, viscerally opposed to the president, circled the wagons, "manufacturing" the "crisis" to protect antipoverty agencies and budgets.

In the early '80s the homeless did, in fact, become increasingly visible, attracting public attention and concern, but White contends that the news media inflated the issue out of all proportion. "Instead of being defined by editors as a local human interest, social justice, or politics story, homelessness came to be seen as an element in a big national story, the page-one story of Reagan's budget cuts," even though the budget cuts had not yet been enacted by Congress, let alone taken effect.

Pro-Democrat, anti-Reagan bureaucrats and politicians, in tandem with the media, set out to slay the conservative dragon. Unfortunately, the liberal knights charged into a vacuum. Academic research on homelessness was all but nonexistent, and social scientists, generally liberal in their sympathies, were unlikely to mount studies that might counter the charges. The Reagan administration itself compounded the problem by minimizing the issue or denying its existence. White here glosses over a basic strategic error—the administration's failure to utilize the factual evidence of the HUD report. Instead of supporting their own researchers, HUD and the White House retreated, allowing grossly inflated estimates to go all but unchallenged.

A lengthy analysis of housing policies and practices serves to challenge the second myth, that building more housing is the answer. Although White acknowledges the lack of "appropriate housing and alternative housing" as a factor contributing to homelessness, he skewers the belief that construction of housing is itself the issue.

Instead he points to misguided policies that reduce or constrict supply. Urban renewal swept away thousands of low-income homes and single-room-occupancy hotels, replacing them with much more expensive housing. Growth controls, encoded in such socially acceptable mechanisms as exclusionary zoning policies and building codes, all but completed the devastation. Environmentalists then picked up the torch. Unless air, water, and earth are returned to Edenic purity, nobody is to build.

White discusses carefully the critical role of rent control, which constricts supply, contributing to homelessness by raising rents and lowering vacancy rates. He believes, however, that only extreme regulations, such as those of New York City, Santa Monica, and Berkeley, contribute significantly to homelessness. Citing a report by the Economic Policy Institute, he asserts that moderate controls, which exempt new construction, allow vacancy decontrol, and permit rents to rise in tandem with costs, have a negligible effect on the supply of housing and hence on homelessness. Indeed, moderate rent control "does not seem to have discouraged the construction of new rental housing except for the first few years after implementation."

The claim is tendentious and simplistic. How many units would have been built in those "first few years" had there been no controls? White also faults William Tucker, author of The Excluded Americans, for failing to recognize that "low-income housing is not profitable without government subsidy." He is correct, of course, in recognizing the subsidy provided by the tax deduction for mortgage interest, but his solution is to extend that subsidy and others, such as mortgage insurance and loan guarantee programs, farther down the economic scale.

In other words, White distrusts the free market and is reluctant to recommend market-oriented policies. While decrying restrictive governmental policies and massive federal intervention, he cannot bring himself to abolish rent control, support vouchers unreservedly, and impose costs on municipalities practicing exclusionary zoning.

The book also provides a substantive analysis of the failures in delivery of mental health services following the deinstitutionalization of the 1960s and the consequences for the 30 percent to 40 percent of the homeless who are mentally ill. Many of the community mental-health centers envisioned never materialized; those that did tended to concentrate on prevention or counseling for the "worried well," rather than treatment of the seriously disturbed. Given the shortage of space in mental hospitals and the legal barriers to commitment, many with acute mental illness end up on the streets, free to freeze to death.

As an approach to a solution, White recommends an integrated system of mental-health treatment that would depend heavily on case management, supportive residential programs, and hospitalization when advisable. The need for treatment, rather than danger to self or others, would once more become the criterion for commitment and for care in the community.

While there is a good case to be made that truly deranged individuals—those suffering from hallucinations, for instance—are not well served when left on the street, White's eagerness to commit people involuntarily to mental hospitals is troublesome. Even if we grant that someone "needs therapy," we must still answer the questions of which therapy, by whom, where, and for how long. And, in answering these questions, White's authoritarian approach is anything but comforting. Indeed, his suggestion that "electroconvulsive therapy…deserves rehabilitation" comes as a shock.

Substance abuse, "the number-one factor in homelessness," is by far more common among the homeless than extreme mental illness, making White's series of detailed interviews with service providers who deal with such abuse particularly valuable. He reviews at length the protective payee program for alcoholics, authorized by Washington state and implemented vigorously by Seattle. Instead of receiving a general assistance check, a client is given the choice of undergoing treatment or having his welfare payment administered for him. The combination of treatment and a stipend has attracted younger alcoholics and drug abusers but has done little for those with chronic, long-term problems except to keep them off the streets.

A brief survey of research and governmental programs, however, results in the disturbing conclusion that "it looks as if alcoholism treatment works, but we do not really know that it does." There is a great need, therefore, for longitudinal studies evaluating the match of treatment for alcoholism to the client. The National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has just begun such a multiyear study, but until the results are in, government policy and the expenditure of huge sums of taxpayer dollars are founded generally on faith.

White makes a persuasive case for increased research and evaluation, even if they lead only to modest gains, and an even more persuasive case for rethinking our attitude toward drug abuse. Instead of regarding alcoholism and cocaine addiction as "illnesses" that can be "cured"—a belief for which medical evidence is lacking—he suggests we should think about returning moral responsibility to the individual. Organizations, of which Alcoholics Anonymous is the best example, seem to succeed by building support groups, then emphasizing individual decisions for sobriety. "Right now," says White, "this is the best we know how to do."

The last and arguably the weakest of the book's three sections focuses on overarching remedies for homelessness that reflect White's social philosophy of community. He argues that homelessness is traceable to the disintegration of the family caused in large part by the extension of untrammeled individual rights, uncoupled from a personal sense of responsibility. The government now functions in loco parentis, but unlike the functional family, which guides its offspring toward independence, welfare programs rarely call recipients to account and fuel never-ending dependency.

Citing AFDC as the prime instance of a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive program, White favors abolishing the program. Instead, he would encourage employment by creating jobs, if necessary, through community-based "workfare," while using tax credits and other governmental supports to bring income to a minimum level. Eliminating a program that encourages dependency is a worthy goal, but White's prescription simply creates a more complicated system of government intervention.

Equally arguable is the assertion that "economic rationalism" has led to massive social disruption. Moving undoubtedly places strains on families and friends and may indeed push the unstable over the edge into substance abuse or even mental illness. But it is difficult to blame "leveraged buyouts, mergers, acquisitions, and relocations" for the emergence of homelessness.

Overall, White's approach is cautious. He would rebuild social infrastructure, but he would use a kinder, gentler government policy to do so. He is a reformer, not a revolutionary. These caveats aside, Rude Awakenings is a helpful, often perceptive, nontechnical overview of a continuing problem. It deserves a place on the shelves of all those professionally concerned with the issue or simply disturbed by the continuing presence of beggars on our streets.

Cassandra Chrones Moore is an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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