They have always been with us. The same beggar who stretched a suppliant palm toward the passing togas of ancient Rome can be found today on Colfax Avenue in Denver, still thirsty for wine; the bruised and broken woman who slept in the gutters of medieval Paris now beds down in a cardboard box in a vest-pocket park in New York City. They exist on the fringes, taking meals when they find them and shelter where they can. Most have drifted well past the limits of respectability, many deep into alcoholism or mental illness. The public usually views their very existence as a shame, a distasteful fact of life met — when it must be faced at all — with averted eyes.
The tattered ranks of America’s homeless are swelling, and the economic recovery that made this Christmas merrier than last for most Americans has not brought them even a lump of coal. As subfreezing temperatures settled in last week, scattered anecdotes gave way to chilly facts. Unemployment is at a two-year low of 8.4 percent, but cities and voluntary groups across the country are swamped with thousands more requests for shelter than ever. In Philadelphia, 15,000 received emergency family housing in 1983 — five times the number sheltered in 1981. In Detroit, auto sales are stronger, but the city estimates homelessness is up 50 percent. In St. Louis, the Salvation Army alone received 4,144 requests, up 47 percent over last year.
No region has been spared. Atlanta’s first overnight shelter opened in 1979; now the city has 27. Salt Lake City’s mayor insists his city has become a “blinking light” for wandering homeless, while Phoenix and Tucson complain that hordes of transients have descended on Arizona and must be repulsed. “Our shelters were full in September, long before it turned cold,” says Audrey Rowe, commissioner of social services in Washington, D.C. With 100 city beds for about 20,000 homeless, Chicago, like most localities, relies on church and community groups. Sister Carrie Driscoll says she turned away 112 people in one day recently from the Catholic Charities shelter she runs in the city’s devastated Woodlawn area. “At night I pray, “Lord, give me one more bed’.”
The bedraggled homeless are walking emblems of poverty and suffering — the only poverty many Americans ever see. But solutions for their plight are not easily found. For one thing, the forces that caused it are longstanding and complex: everything from the disintegration of family ties to significant failures in America’s approaches to housing, mental health and welfare for the poorest of the poor. For another, the homeless move outside the ordinary social structures that might help them, and often resist any effort to bring them in. The result is an entire underclass of people who have managed to slide right through the safety nets and into the gutter.
“In the missions you sleep on a folding chair and wake up in the middle of the night with some guy talking weird and drooling all over you,” says Billy Collins, a 23-year-old ex-machine-lathe operator who left his family and lit out for Florida and then California. He did not find work — or adventure; instead, he ended up eating scraps out of the Dumpsters behind McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. “The old guys riding the rails will be ready to share what they’ve got,” says Collins. “But people like me will just beat them up and rip them off.”
Because they live without addresses, the homeless are unable to receive food stamps and welfare in most states, invisible in unemployment statistics and impossible to count. Estimates range anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million nationwide, tens of thousands of whom hazard the elements every night. The largest private sponsor of shelter, the Salvation Army, provides only 42,000 beds — a drop in the bucket. The largest publicly sponsored shelter system is run by New York, which now houses 6,000. That’s double the capacity of two years ago and more than during the Great Depression — but insufficient in a city where officials estimate 20,000 homeless in the under-21 category alone. The chairman of the city’s Board of Health says that an average of one homeless person a day is now found dead in the streets.
Like the rich, the homeless judge status by where they sleep. The less chance of interruption by police or other vagrants, the more rest they get. Informal turf arrangements, say skid-row veterans, are beginning to break down under the weight of the new arrivals. But certain distinctions remain. The most successful find refuge in garages or abandoned buildings, over hot air grates or under bridges. The less discriminating settle for phone booths, park benches, trash Dumpsters.
The people who pass the night in such accommodations are a much more diverse lot than in the past — and much younger, now averaging in their low 30s. Twenty years ago the homeless consisted almost exclusively of alcoholic skidrow men, mostly older white males. They have been joined by huge numbers of released mental patients, who now make up one-third to one-half of the total, and have added thousands of women to the streets. It’s hard to tell who were seriously ill before becoming homeless, and who were driven over the edge by the rigors of street life. Few are dangerous to anyone but themselves.
During the recession there was a sharp increase in younger variations on the traditional hobo — unskilled drifters heading south and west in a futile search for work, many with their families. Recently, however, cities are reporting that the bulk of their homeless aren’t transients at all. Many of the locals, says Ed Loring of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, are young men who come out of housing projects and high schools without any marketable skills. Most male homeless have worked at some point, but usually in menial jobs.
The new drifters and dropouts are different from the winos and bag ladies. “You see the embitterment and disillusionment of life in them,” says Capt. Cliff Jones of the Grand Junction, Colo., Salvation Army. Inside New York’s Ft. Washington Armory, older men sleep gripping their shoes so they aren’t stolen by the newer arrivals. Contrary to myth, most homeless welcome any roof over their heads, but crime in certain urban shelters is so pervasive that some now take the same approach as their psychotic brethren on the street — refusing any offer of shelter.
The paradoxes of homelessness are practically endless. As cities revitalized their downtowns in the 1970s by tearing down dilapidated hotels, they threw thousands who could afford nothing else into the street. As states emptied overcrowded and ill-staffed mental hospitals, they set thousands free to fend for themselves. And now, as local governments and charitable organizations stretch to provide relief, they find, according to some accounts, that the more they do, the more they increase demand. Meanwhile, what they cannot do — from providing underwear (an item, unlike overcoats, that’s rarely donated) to finding family backing and permanent housing — is what the homeless often need most.
The immediate reason people are homeless, logically enough, is that they don’t have homes, and the primary reason for that is what was once called the low-income-housing crisis but is nowadays more dimly recalled as “something everyone cared a lot about in the 1960s.” One reason the issue faded from national view is that the government’s housing policies failed. Washington warehoused the poor in dismal high-rise projects, provided loans guaranteed to default and wasted billions in administratively inept programs that ended up subsidizing middle-class renters — and government paper shufflers — instead of the poor. Fewer than half of the 6 million low-income units Lyndon Johnson believed were needed in 1968 ever got built.
But while attention flagged, the problem grew worse. Median rent increased twice as fast as income in the 1970s, and low-income-housing construction came to a virtual standstill. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports construction and renovation dwindled to 203,113 units in 1979 under Jimmy Carter and to 55,120 in 1983 under Ronald Reagan. Yet census figures show about 2 million Americans living in substandard quarters and hundreds of thousands on mind-numbing waiting lists for public housing: 20 years in Miami, 12 in New York, 4 in Savannah, Ga.
The Reagan administration’s housing policy revolves around $200 million in vouchers for low-income people to use for rent — a plan that assumes there is no shortage of housing, only an inability to pay for it. But a recent Brookings Institution study suggests that the shortage may reach 1.7 million low-income units by 1990. And the total housing subsidy for the poor is small compared to what the middle class and rich receive. Their subsidy comes in the form of a home-mortgage tax deduction that applies even to summer homes and will cost the Treasury about $42.8 billion in 1984.
Those who benefit from this deduction are “gentrifying” the cities; they are helping restore the tax base and quality of life in old neighborhoods. But the side effects are devastating. The first buildings to be abandoned, converted into condominiums or destroyed are often the flophouses called single-room occupancies (SRO’s) where many of the very poorest live. About 1 million rooms — nearly half the total — were converted or destroyed nationwide between 1970 and 1980, according to a Columbia-New York University study. New York lost 87 percent of its SRO’s in this period. Cities like Denver, Seattle and Rochester have lost more than 50 percent.
Some of the denizens of these seedy hotels and abandoned slums go directly into the streets, but many live first with friends and relatives. In fact, the number of American families sharing quarters in 1982 was up 58 percent — the first such increase since 1950. And that has given rise to a curious development. In the past, fire tended to be the most common direct cause of homelessness; now it’s often eviction — eviction initiated not only by landlords, but increasingly by friends and relatives. “So many are crammed into already crowded housing with an Aunt Louise,” says David Park Smith of the Dallas Coalition for the Homeless. “Pretty soon they wear out their welcome and are out on the streets.”
Once the screaming and door slamming subsides, the only refuge is emergency shelter. In New York, where especially accurate figures are available, 2,300 families, up from 900 last year, are housed in squalid welfare hotels that charge the city around $1,400 per family per month and boast rats and prostitutes for neighbors. The single-sex shelters for individuals cost the city $24 per “client” per night — most of the money going for personnel. In the East New York shelter, which regularly features an inch of water on a floor where people sleep and two-hour waits for showers, about $3 million a year pays salaries for security officers who are more visible on the payroll than in the shelter.
By contrast, private shelters around the country operate at an average cost of about $3 to $6 a person for smaller, more hospitable quarters often located in church basements or community centers. “There’s a psychological effect of being in a church that draws respect from guests,” says Luz Martinez, coordinator of a Chicago shelter. Almost all private sponsors argue that while the government does a bad job of running shelters, its funding help is required. Emergency-housing services agree. In 1983, Seattle, a city sympathetic to the homeless, turned down 4,000 families — about 16,000 people — seeking temporary housing.
She was called the cellophane lady because of the way she wrapped her legs and feet to protect them from the Philadelphia cold. It didn’t work: last winter Lillian Roseborough nearly lost her limbs because of hypothermia. Even so, the 65-year-old woman refused to be removed from the street where she lives — just a block from her daughter’s apartment. She insisted that she was ruled by the spirit of “jing-jing,” and that if she went inside before the government provided shelter for all street people, she would die.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Many state mental hospitals were unspeakably inhumane, and new miracle drugs could control the psychotic without straitjackets. So starting in the mid-1950s, the nation’s mental hospitals began releasing inmates in unprecedented numbers. Liberals applauded the new civil rights granted to the nondangerous mentally ill; conservatives were happy to find a seemingly compassionate way to cut state budgets. Between 1955 and 1982 state mental institutions shrank by more than three-quarters — from 558,922 patients to 125,200.
But there is widespread agreement that efforts to “deinstitutionalize” mental patients have backfired. While some do fine, tens of thousands end up homeless — if not right away, then after a few years of bouncing among families, institutions and the street. At the same time, it has become nearly impossible to get the nondangerous mentally ill admitted to state asylums, or to keep them there long enough to get a grip on themselves. In California, for instance, the median stay is now only 16 days.
“If a doctor walked away from an operation for an appendicitis, he would be sued for malpractice,” says New York attorney Robert Hayes. “The state has walked away from these patients.” Hayes felt so strongly about it that in 1982 he quit the prominent New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell and founded the Coalition for the Homeless, which is suing cities for the right to shelter and coordinating the work of 40 groups in states across the country.
Those patients sent back to what the professionals call “independent living” are truly on their own. According to Dr. John Talbott, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), fewer than a quarter of the patients discharged from state mental institutions remain in any mental-health program at all. When they crack up, the lucky ones are taken to hospital emergency rooms, where they routinely wait hours — sometimes tied to chairs — for a temporary bed. One out of every five patients at New York City public hospitals is homeless.
Follow-up treatment has been scarce partly because many psychotic street people mistakenly believe they are well, and grow fearful that any contact with authorities will lead to getting locked up again. Large numbers have serious delusions. One woman wandered Hollywood assuring passers-by that she was Linda Darnell, a movie star of the 1940s who died in 1965. Another rejected food and water for days because she thought she was a plant and could soak up nourishment from the rain. A man with his possessions in garbage bags told travelers he had seen the Ayatollah Khomeini in the basement of a train station. When wealthier people have mental or drinking problems they often rely on counseling; the poor have it harder. Navigating the byzantine mental-health bureaucracy, says Talbott, “would drive even the normal person insane.”
But the main reason mental-health care has left so many homeless is that funding didn’t follow the patients out of the hospitals and into the community. A 1963 goal of starting 2,000 community mental-health centers nationwide by 1980 is still 1,283 short. Some community-based care is actually decreasing. Colorado, for instance, has released 1,172 patients since 1981, but the number of halfway houses has fallen from 60 in 1975 to about 10 today. Even the mentally ill themselves recognize the irrationality of the situation. “It’s a merry-go-round,” says one 48-year-old schizophrenic in New York. “You go to the hospital, then they dump you into those Dante Inferno shelters and then you go back again. This system doesn’t make a man go up. It makes him go down.”
Some of this results from budget squeezes, but much is the fault of administrators, legislators and civil-service unions. When money is available, it often doesn’t go to the homeless mentally ill. In 1979, 43 percent of the $8.8 billion in total mental-health expenditures was spent by state hospitals, and only 17 percent by federal outpatient clinics serving the homeless. Some state officials claim that hospitals have to keep so much of the money in order to maintain specific staffing ratios required by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals. But the JCAH says that’s untrue.
While homeless psychotics wander the streets without care, most state-employed doctors and staff are back at the nearly empty asylums. In the last 20 years the average patient-staff ratio in state mental hospitals has dropped from 5 to 1 to 1 to 1. And civil-service unions prefer to keep it that way. Efforts to cut or transfer maintenance and support staff in favor of more community efforts are usually straitjacketed. When New York Gov. Mario Cuomo announced budget cuts for the state mental-health system, for instance, the huge Creedmoor Psychiatric Center cut its community outreach staff — and protected hospital workers who maintain a 315-acre complex that houses one-fifth as many patients as it once did.
Meanwhile, citing past welfare abuses, the Reagan administration has tightened the review process so that fewer people qualify for benefits. Since 1980 more than 200,000 have been dropped from the rolls of Supplemental Security Income alone, a major source of income for the mentally ill. Many of these people are defined as clinically employable by the government, but in the real world can’t possibly get jobs. Among those rejected for benefits in 1982, according to community workers, were an incontinent man who wore seven pairs of pants at once and a woman who thought she was a Vietnam War orphan.
For the nonmentally ill homeless, welfare isn’t always much better. In many states it won’t pay the rent. A New Mexico family of four is expected to get by on $66 a month in rent allowance. In Indiana, it’s $100 a month for rent, regardless of family size. And these states aren’t exceptions. Last year Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh and the state legislature moved to restrict all able-bodied men to 90 days of welfare a year. Instead of lessening dependency, as conservatives hoped, it simply made many of them homeless and thus still dependent. William Wachob, chairman of the welfare subcommittee of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, charges that “Thornfare,” now being revised, is “directly responsible for the increase of homeless.”
The counseling service in downtown Houston is called Compass and it’s run by a gray-haired woman named Kay White, who helps street people get anchored. The approach avoids “quick fixes and rice-bowl Christianity,” she says, and attracts 600 a month. “I listen to them, accept what they have to say and also ask myself if they’re trying to rip me off” White says. “Some do and I tell them to leave.” Greater numbers don’t — and leave with help: a bus token, an apartment lead, a phone number for a job.
Coping with homelessness requires melding public and private efforts in ways that help street people but don’t hurt taxpayers. After all, most people take what Jane Malone, an activist on behalf of the homeless in Philadelphia, calls a “minimalist” approach to the problem — essentially, “not in my neighborhood.” That is understandable; the homeless do drive down property values, and it isn’t pleasant to find that someone has urinated in your doorway. Some argue that the more that is done on behalf of the homeless, the more comfortable they will be with their plight — and the worse the problem will become.
But if government and the community helped worsen the problem, they can work together to ease it. As George Orwell wrote in “Down and Out in Paris and London,” “the “serve them damned well right’ attitude that is normally taken toward tramps is no fairer than it would be toward cripples.” Sister Gay of Houston, who has adopted 10 homeless children and tended to their families, believes that. So does a consortium of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and two foundations now sponsoring a $20 million effort to treat the ghastly array of diseases that afflict the homeless.
There are success stories of public-private cooperation: last month a Memphis pilot project opened 10 HUD-owned houses for under $100,000. Still, roadblocks remain. On White House orders, the Pentagon has offered 500 locations, mostly unoccupied military-reserve centers, but so far only a few have been put to use — largely because cities and local groups would have to pick up most of the tab needed to make the places inhabitable. The Federal Emergency Management Administration has distributed $140 million over two years in shelter aid, but admits it’s a one-time effort. Margaret Heckler, secretary of Health and Human Services, says the Reagan administration is now studying ways to cut the red tape, and NEWSWEEK has learned that HUD will decide soon whether to subsidize shelters directly.
Permanent housing is a taller order. One reason it’s so expensive for the government to build low-income units is that government contracts usually must pay the so-called prevailing wage — which almost always matches the top union scale in any given region. Andrew Raubeson, director of the Burnside Consortium, which has renovated 450 SRO units for use by poor people in Portland, Ore., says that his costs are $6,000 to $9,000 a unit, less than a fifth the expense of many government projects.
That’s a big difference, and some low-income-housing advocates suggest that waiving the prevailing wage on low-income projects may be the only way to bring the federal government into a partnership to build more housing. Doing so would require amending the Davis-Bacon Act, a sacred cow for most Democrats that even the Reagan administration has not challenged. More flexible wages might also allow unskilled laborers to help in the work of renewing their own neighborhoods. Private tenant organizations around the country have already begun this. Some, in cities like San Francisco, have also won agreement that when developers tear down flophouses, they will help pay for some new low-income housing.
Solutions to the mental-health riddle are following a similar logic of public-private cooperation. Some mental-health professionals and government officials argue that providing community care is prohibitively expensive. But that assumes it is done in what might be called the “prevailing” way — that is, with highly paid psychiatrists and other union-scale mental-health professionals. What homeless mental patients need first, their advocates say, is simply a place to stay and some supervision by compassionate people. Many private halfway houses now provide stable environments for former mental patients for as little as $6,000 per person a year, compared with about $40,000 in state hospitals. With more charitable and government funding, these places could make a major dent in the number of mentally ill homeless without sending them back to asylums.
For mental health, as for shelter and permanent housing, the answer seems to lie in the government’s setting aside its inclination to solve the problems itself in favor of helping the community do its natural work. That requires a leap of faith. But it is much the same leap volunteers take as they overcome enough of their nervousness about America’s lost souls to pitch in and help.
In Denver, a tattered group of men line a warehouse ramp, waiting in the snowy dusk to enter the Salvation Army Survival Shelter. John Destry, 22, a navy stocking cap rolled on his head, describes his homeless life. “The streets are dangerous,” he says. “But, you know, we all do the same things, have the same needs — a hot meal, some warm clothes, someplace to sleep.”
With Alexander Stille and Shawn Doherty in New York, Nikki Finke Greenberg in Washington, Susan Agrest in Philadelphia, Vern E. Smith in Atlanta, George Raine in Seattle, Darby Junkin in Denver and bureau reports