EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Mayors want homelessness back on national agenda
Connie walks the streets of my neighborhood. She doesn’t bother anyone, and she spurns most well-intentioned offers of help. No one really knows what happened to Connie; some suggest it was a ’60s bout with bad drugs, and some say the long-ago loss of a child sent her over the edge.
We are, however, pretty sure that Connie has no regular home. Most days, she sits in a nearby park, a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her eyes trained intensely on the sidewalk in front of her as if it were the most beautiful thing in the world. The expanding national economy was supposed to take care of our Connies. But somehow, they fell through the cracks.
In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released the results of a survey of 26 cities that found that hunger and homelessness continue their inexorable rise. (Ironically, those survey results were published just before an announcement that the holidays had spurred the highest retail sales in years.)
According to the mayors’ survey, in 1999, demand for emergency food-related assistance grew at the highest rate since 1992; demand for emergency housing assistance at the highest rate since 1994. Sadly, the mayors estimate that fully 21 percent of the requests for food assistance went unmet. More than half the responding cities indicated that a lack of resources forced them to turn away more than half those applying for assistance. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents indicated that demand for housing had increased.
The causes of homelessness are many — lack of affordable housing, drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, poverty and the fallout from welfare reform. Men comprise the largest homeless group (43 percent), but families with children are right behind at 37 percent. (It is estimated that between 700,000 and 1 million people are homeless.)
The mayors are insisting that somebody do something. Now, help may be on the way. On Christmas Day, President Clinton announced grants totaling $900 million to help states, cities and nonprofit groups help the country’s homeless. Most of that money ($750 million) will go to more than 350 communities and more than 1,000 nonprofits for long-term programs that will offer job training and other social services. The rest will fund short-term shelter and food.
One unfortunate by-product of the current economic explosion is that homelessness and hunger have almost dropped off the national radar screen. The mayors’ compassionate cry on behalf of the country’s Connies may help re-focus our attention.