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The Homelessness Marathon

The Truth About Homelessness

These facts are not part of the national dialog about homelessness (such as it is).


* Other countries take different approaches to homelessness than we do, and some do a much, much better job of preventing it than we do. They do things like keep families in their homes, even if the state has to pay the rent for a long time, because they know that the financial and social toll of homelessness would be far greater.

* For many years now, official homelessness policy in the United States has revolved around encouraging a plethora of local initiatives usually called something like "A Ten Year Plan To End Homelessness." What has been missing from all of these ten-year plans is a date on which, according to the plan, homelessness would actually end. The plans were never more than public relations gimmicks, they have massively failed, and they do not represent a serious attempt to resolve the homelessness crisis.

* Recently, unofficial homelessness policy across the United States has been to criminalize homelessness, like something out of Dickens' time. Homeless people are routinely rousted, arrested and driven from their encampments, which, for many of them (especially women), represent their only place of safety. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development does not withhold funds from communities that treat homeless people badly. HUD simply doesn't care.

* Before the 2007 financial crash, there was one (still unrecognized) group of people sounding the alarm. Homeless advocates tried to warn people that our modern crisis of homelessness was not caused by people gone bad, but by a system gone bad, and that this malfunctioning system would attack more than the poorest of the poor. Sure enough, the global economy nearly collapsed, because of a burst bubble in (not-coincidentally) the U.S. housing market. The message from homeless advocates is still the same: widespread homelessness is a symptom of a cruel economy tricked up to help only the rich.


The 16th Homelessness Marathon is available for rebroadcast

Hour One: Click here
Hour Two: Click here
Hour Three: Click here
Hour Four: Click here
Hour Five: Click here
Hour Six: Click here


Let the Bums Have a Flop

by Nobody, the founder of the Homelessness Marathon

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The reason nothing gets fixed in this country is because the problems are more profitable than the solutions. And it's usually not hard to figure out where the profit lies. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that many industries find it's cheaper to pollute than to clean up. And you don't have to be an industrial polluter to see that scientists make more money building rockets than working for peace.

But it's a little harder sometimes to see the profit in homelessness. After all, who makes money off the homeless besides drug dealers and distilleries? Isn't that the cause of the problem, that they all drink and drug too much and, oh yeah, some of them are crazy? No, that's not the cause of the problem, but this myth certainly keeps us from looking at what the causes really are.

Let's start with the bums. Yeah, that's right, let's not call them homeless, let's just call them bums like we did when we were kinder to them. Back in the old days, there used to be flop houses. I grew up in Manhattan, so I know first hand that in the early 60's it used to cost 25 cents for a flop except in the more upscale "Lyons House" where it was fifty cents. I know this because they had their prices displayed right outside.

Today, Manhattan's flop houses are gone, and I have it on the reliable testimony of a former New York City junkie that the cheapest hotel rooms in the city cost about $35 a night. Even if a couple of people split the room, that still means the price of a bed for a drunk has gone up 70 times in 40 years. That's like a $200-a-month apartment becoming a $14,000-a-month apartment. If sober people had faced hikes like that, even more of them would be on the streets too.

Where did the flop houses go? In city after city they were victims of urban renewal, as were the SRO's (single room occupancy buildings, where you could get a cheap room on a monthly or yearly basis). Why did the flop houses go? Because in city after city the powers that be decided more revenue would be returned to the tax base (i.e. they'd make more money), if the cheap housing was torn down and replaced by office buildings, stadiums and convention centers. Me, I'd have said, "Let the bums have a flop," just like people said for generations, but that's not the way it is in America anymore. The cities like to talk about the millions they spend solving homelessness, but not the tens of millions they made creating it.

Of course, there are plenty of homeless people who aren't bums, by which I mean, they're clearly not doing everything they can to stay in the same miserable situation. Think of it this way. More than 750,000 people are homeless at any given moment, which represents as many as 3.5 million people cycling on and off the streets every year, which represents at least 20 million people homeless since the early '80s when the crisis began. Just do the math.

750,000 represents less than four percent of 20 million, which means that more than 96 percent of all the people who have ever been homeless have gotten out of homelessness (as will most of the people on the streets today). That's a statistic you won't hear from Bill O'Reily who regularly portrays homeless people as unable to get their lives together. Maybe because once you've heard it, you have to wonder how come this obviously motivated more-than-96% wound up on the streets in the first place.

Does anyone remember the name Sam Pierce? He was Reagan's HUD secretary, and two things happened under his aegis. First HUD got out of the business of building housing, which is why there's a critical shortage of affordable housing today. In the peak years of the 1970s, we were spending over $60 billion a year on all the Federal housing programs. But under Reagan and Pierce, that figure plummeted to the point where we're spending less than $30 billion today. If we'd stayed at the pre-Reagan/Pierce levels, an aggregate of well over $500 billion more would have been spent on housing. Can anyone doubt that we wouldn't be in the pickle we're in if it weren't for those cuts? Well, someone else got the $500 billion, so we know exactly what this policy change was worth to them.

The other thing that happened under Pierce was that there was a mammoth scandal about HUD funds being misappropriated to finance pet projects for the clients of highly-placed Republican consultants. Pierce didn't go to jail, himself, but some of his associates did, indeed, wind up living in government housing aka the pokey. And just which money do you think it was that they misappropriated? It was some of the surviving funds (about $10 billion worth) for low-income housing. So let us not be too polite to remember that the homelessness crisis was created, in part, by people who weren't too proud to rob the poor box.

And let's also not forget that when we're talking about low-income housing, we're talking about housing for people who do, in fact, have an income. Why do these people make so little money that they need low-income housing to begin with? O'Reily notwithstanding, the answer has much less to do with choices they made than with choices they didn't make.

For example, the Social Security Administration says that in 2001, there were 2,649,523 people getting SSI and no other form of Federal benefit except maybe food stamps. These people were, by the requirements of the program, blind, disabled, or over 65 years old but for some reason not eligible for regular social security. These were surely among the people Ronald Reagan called the "truly needy," the ones he said would not be allowed to slip through the social safety net.

But these SSI recipients couldn't decide for themselves how much money they would get. That decision was made for them in Washington, and in Washington they decided that the average monthly payment (as of Dec. 2003) would be $435.38. Some of the states kick in another $200 or so, but this is why every year on the Homelessness Marathon I find myself talking to disabled people who don't get a check from the government big enough to let them afford housing.

Let's do some more math. Let's just suppose we gave the otherwise destitute aged, disabled and blind an extra $500 a month, which might be enough to give most of them a little fiscal dignity. That would be an additional $6000 per year for 2.65 million people or, approximately, $16 billion a year. In other words, leaving some of our neediest citizens to rot, frees up $16 billion a year for people who couldn't possibly need the money as much, if at all.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people with low incomes who actually do work, but they just don't make much money at their jobs. The original idea of the minimum wage was to keep these lowest-paid workers from sinking into poverty, but the real-dollar value of the minimum wage has fallen to the point where it doesn't do that anymore. And as the wage floor has fallen, it has taken with it the real-dollar value of the wages pegged to be a little above the minimum or a little above that. Whose fault do we think this is?

Do we think it was the minimum-wage workers, themselves, who lobbied Washington and insisted that they be paid too little? Or do we think the process is a tad more influenced by the wealthy employers? Well what was it worth to the employers?

According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13,677,000 people are working for $7.14 an hour or less. If we gave them all an extra dollar, the ones at the very top would be getting about the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968. And the ones at the bottom still wouldn't be making enough, but at least they'd be better off. That one dollar would cost employers $13.6 million dollars an hour. That's $544 million a week (for a 40 hour week) or more than $28 billion dollars a year.

In other words, every dollar that low-wage workers lose represents a $28 billion subsidy for business -- annually. And, of course, when the lowest wages are depressed, the wages in the middle are too, freeing up the globs of cash that today's titans of industry use to reward themselves with historic largesse. But even this is not enough.

You just can't make an American job cheap enough to keep someone with expensive tastes from shipping it overseas. And what is it worth to American corporations to have the remaining American workers so scared that they'll accept give-backs and cuts and be afraid to unionize much less strike? The bosses don't have to hire Pinkertons when they can hire Congress to strip away labor's protections and threaten workers with becoming homeless if they raise a peep.

Add to this the billions of dollars that are made by the for-profit health-care industry which has no compunctions about bankrupting people, driving them into the streets and then denying them proper care when they get there. This mega-industry's profits would be lost if we had national health care like almost every other industrialized nation.

And of course, unless something changes, the enormous Federal budget deficit will be paid for in no small measure by reductions in aid for the poorest Americans. That's how Shwarzenegger is fixing California's deficit. Has anyone heard of a different plan for the national debt? And how was that debt created? With massive tax breaks for the rich. So how greedy is that? They've even stolen from tomorrow's poor. Couldn't they at least have had the decency to leave some poor for future generations to rob?

No wonder we're supposed to think homelessness is just a matter of personal responsibility. It's a money gusher for the people who really create it, and they're the ones who never take responsibility at all.


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The Homelessness Marathon's mission is to raise consciousness about homelessness and poverty in America and around the world. We operate on a shoestring budget and the dedication of volunteers, so your contribution will really make a difference.