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Put the poor back on the national agenda

Nearly a million people in the United States find themselves homeless every night. More than a third of them are turned away from shelters for lack of space, according to a survey released last December by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Overcrowding is such in some shelters that many sleep on the floor.

For homeless families, who comprise nearly 40 percent of the homeless population, the situation is even worse. More than half of them are turned away from shelters. In more than half of U.S. cities, families may have to break up in order to find shelter. It is estimated that 50 percent of the homeless are African-American.

The poor have always been the hidden segment in America. Their absence from public concern is even more pronounced when our attention is on outside enemies. That is why the bishops have embarked on a special campaign to make the public aware of the ongoing problem of poverty, especially among children (NCR, Feb 15). It is also why U.S. mayors and other advocacy groups are trying to penetrate the din of war coverage with warnings about the consequences of a continued economic downturn and a squeeze on social spending anticipated next year to accommodate massive increases in the defense budget. It is why we have highlighted what seem basic injustices in the availability of health care throughout the culture, especially to those working poor who are too poor to afford care, whose jobs don’t provide health benefits and who make too much to take advantage of clinics.

The poor may remain hidden, but an outline of their lives is drawn in distressing statistics.

The two million poorest families in the country saw their income fall by 8 percent between 1995 and 1999. What they gained in earnings from work was less than what they lost in welfare and food stamps. Those who are on welfare are now facing further cuts. The 5-year lifetime limit on welfare mandated by the 1996 law affected many last year and will reach many more this year. Others who got jobs are now being laid off because of the recession, but because of their low earnings on the jobs they no longer hold, four out of five of them do not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.

Perhaps the weirdest quirk in the welfare laws is the so-called “family cap,” a provision that denies benefits to children born to mothers on welfare. More than 100,000 children are being punished for the behavior of their “irresponsible” mothers.

In the struggle to survive, the homeless are losing. According to the report of the Conference of Mayors, food requests were up 23 percent and emergency requests up 13 percent in 2001. Each of the preceding three years had recorded a similar percentage.

Experts warn us that the worst is still ahead. Facing budget crises and burdened with security costs, states and cities have cut back on programs that keep people from becoming homeless, such as health care and rent assistance. Financing for low-cost housing has been scaled back, and that means that the shortage of affordable housing will become more acute.

So tight is the squeeze already that the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported that a third of vouchers for the Section 8 subsidized housing program are being returned unused. Meanwhile, foundations are warning that their assets have been clobbered by the recession so that they will be making fewer and smaller grants to grassroots community agencies.

The Federal Interagency Council on the Homeless describes the homeless person as characterized by a high level of poverty, illness, disabilities and lack of medical insurance. The disabilities typically include drug addiction, soured relationships and alcohol. The root problem, however, is low wages and lack of affordable housing. In the Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., for example, 41 percent of the people on streets or in temporary housing each night have jobs, and the figures are similar in many of our big cities. We can expect no change until we take action to convert the minimum wage into a living wage.

One would expect loud and angry protests from the self-proclaimed guardians of the commonweal, the media. It is true that the issue is not entirely ignored. Local newspapers record problems in their hometowns: requests for beds in shelters up 26 percent in Trenton, N.J.; 25 percent in Kansas City, Mo.; 20 percent in Denver and New Orleans. But these are presented as isolated incidents, not as part of the national problem of which they are symptoms. Meanwhile, on the national level, the homeless have no high-powered lobbyists with bulging pockets of soft money to grab attention in Congress.

Homelessness, hunger, health care. Who cares? How can anyone hope to get those issues on the national agenda in times like these? Perhaps it is time to take small steps. The postcard or e-mail to a local legislator, raising the issue with your small community, connecting with the shelters and soup kitchens and religious groups providing frontline aid in your area. Perhaps, together, we can bring the poor out of hiding and place their needs back on the national agenda.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002