The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 26, 2013

Government must address needs to help the homeless

By John Blankenship
Columnist

— They rummage through dumpsters and beg for your spare change. They lie on the floors of public restrooms. Seeking warmth, they huddle over the sidewalk steam grates. At the age of 30 they look 50.

They are the homeless, and they make up a growing percentage of America’s population.

Not everyone agrees on the number of Americans who are homeless. Estimates range anywhere from 600,000 to two million at any given time. One study published in The Economist magazine estimated that 12 million Americans have been homeless at some point in their lives.

Although the figures may vary, analysts agree on another matter: that the number of homeless, particularly of homeless families, is increasing. In another chilling statistic, according to the National Alliance to end Homelessness, families with children are the fastest growing group of homeless people, comprising about 40 percent of the homeless population.

At the same time, a large number of the homeless are blacks and some 40 percent are veterans. But contrary to public opinion, the homeless are not lazy as some people think, according to Dr. Patrick McGrady, a Raleigh County native who is professor of sociology at the University of New Haven in New Haven, Conn.

“Ninety percent of (the homeless) once held jobs, and 15-20 percent of them are currently employed but unable to afford a home,” the sociologist explained.

The majority of Americans seem to agree that homelessness is a major problem in the United States. Finding ways to help the homeless, though, is often challenging. Comprehensive programs are needed to address the complex difficulties that many homeless people have. The last two decades have seen a dramatic drop in the minimum-wage buying power and expenses have risen dramatically.

But the lack of affordable housing seems to be at the center of the homeless dilemma. The federal government has cut funding of public housing and housing subsidies in recent decades. Affordable private housing is almost non-existent.

A U.S. Conference on Mayors survey, meanwhile, found that in the past several years, requests for shelter access increased in three-quarters of the top 25 cities while 72 percent of those cities reported increases in families requesting such aid.

Finding ways to assist this growing and changing homeless population has become increasingly difficult. Even when homeless individuals or families manage to find a shelter that will give them three meals a day and a place to sleep at night, a good number have trouble moving beyond the shelter system and securing a more stable lifestyle.

Part of the problem, according to McGrady, is that many homeless adults are addicted to alcohol and drugs. He also noted that nearly one-third of the homeless have serious psychiatric disorders.

“Individuals suffering from such illnesses and from addiction often lack the ability to find jobs and homes, and therefore remain homeless for a longer period of time,” McGrady said. “Even those who are not addicted or mentally ill often lack the common survival skills enabling them to flourish in a complex and constantly changing society.”

In light of all these and other problems, one conclusion seems inevitable: the federal government must take a more active role in helping America’s homeless, increasing its support of programs that make a noticeable difference in the lives of a struggling cluster of suffering citizens.

Such programs do more than provide food and shelter; they also offer substance-abuse counseling, psychological support, instruction in basic survival skills and job training.

And unless the government guarantees a decent minimum wage and affordable housing, even skilled, well-adjusted individuals may be forced to live on the street, according to McGrady.

He believes the socio-economic state will improve only when the government shoulders its share of the public responsibility and address the many needs of the homeless, including career training and support services which help keep the men and women from eventually returning to their vagrant ways.

“To help the homeless people toward independence,” McGrady said, “the federal government must support rehabilitation and job training programs, raise the minimum wage and fund more low-cost housing.

“In other words, the homeless need more than a key and a lease if they are to turn their lives around in a highly-technological and competitive society.”

n n n-----Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.

— E-mail: jabbb@suddenlinnk.net