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Jewish World Review / Dec. 14 1998 / 25 Kislev, 5759

Don Feder

Don Feder Why we lost interest
in the homeless

LIKE SALVATION ARMY KETTLES, touching appeals for the homeless are a sign of the season.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness Inc. is running full-page ads illustrated with a photo of a cherubic child. "This child will never be told to clean his room, take out the garbage," etc., the ad plaintively discloses.

"It's not a perfect childhood. It's a homeless one." The alliance claims there are "some one million American kids growing up homeless."

Someone must maintain the mythology.

The media lost interest in the subject when a Democrat took up residence in the White House in 1993. The number of times the word "homeless" appeared in a Washington Post headline fell from 149 in 1990 to 41 in 1997.

Today, such stories usually concern municipalities getting tough with the steam-grate set. Thus a New York Times article of Nov. 3 was headlined, "Fed up, Berkeley begins crackdown on homelessness." It noted that the all-Democratic city council ("dominated by a progressive faction") authorized police to disperse homeless encampments.

Self-styled advocates (most of the homeless are too loony or zonked out to choose their champions) rail at Berkeley's heartlessness.

Instead of criminalizing these victims of societal indifference, the city should be making more beds available in shelters, providing job training and generally papering over the problem with large-denomination bills, they lament.

Trouble is, the public -- including politicians of the left and right -- have tired of such pleading.

Ah, for those halcyon days of homeless advocacy in the early 1980s. Then all activists had to do was sleep in a shipping crate or dine out at a dumpster, and -- abracadabra -- instant media attention and credibility.

Tribunes of the tattered (like the late Mitch Snyder, who deserted his wife and children to become a homeless advocate) could fabricate statistics out of thin air -- like 1 million homeless kids in America -- and never be challenged.

Synder once told a college audience that 45 homeless people die every second in this country. Rush Limbaugh, who did the math, figured that would mean 23 million homeless expiring each year.

A 1990 Census Bureau estimate put the number of homeless at around 270,000 -- meaning each of them would have to die 85 times a year to make Snyder's mortality estimate correct.

Then there was the snapshot of homelessness presented in documentaries and made-for-TV movies. Here, the homeless invariably were portrayed as nice middle-class folks who first lost their income, then their domicile and lastly their dignity, as they were thrown on the streets.

Teachers told students that most families were just a few paychecks away from homelessness. At Christmas, Jesse Jackson urged us to recall that Mary and Joseph were a homeless family.

Like the Alliance's ad, these Norman Rockwell portraits were more fiction than fact. Families with children actually comprise fewer than 20 percent of the homeless -- that's less than 20 percent of roughly 300,000.

Today, almost everyone acknowledges that roughly two-thirds of the homeless are mentally ill (to one degree or another), have a substance-abuse problem or combine these pathologies.

This recognition debunks the other major myth of homelessness: activists' insistence that the problem was caused by cuts in public housing.

Free-market conservatives countered that it was all government's fault. Get rid of rent control and the homeless will all be living in condos with satellite dishes, they earnestly maintained.

A more realistic appraisal was provided by libertarian author P.J. O'Rourke, who -- in response to demands that the government build housing for the homeless -- declared that if it did, half would rip out the plumbing and sell it for booze or drugs, and the other half were so crazy that they'd jump out the windows.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the homeless are still with us.

Unfortunates don't have to be cuddly blonde children to elicit our sympathy.

It's all right to feel sorry for adults who are mentally ill or addicted.

But how to help them? We could quadruple the number of shelter beds, but most of the homeless prefer the pavement. We could train them for jobs, assuming there are any suitable for substance-dependent loonies.

The only thing that might make a difference is mandatory mental evaluation combined with involuntary commitment (briefly, for those who can be helped by medication or therapy). But then, the ACLU would throw a hissy-fit and the Alliance would be deprived of many objects of its concern.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.