Answers for the homeless

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WITH winter looming ahead, it's time to start making preparations, perhaps getting out the snow shovel and the halite, and pulling the heavy clothes from the storage chests. And it is time for American cities to start preparing to deal with their homeless. However much improved the network of emergency shelters has been over the past few years, the public dialogue on the issue has become unfortunately politicized. Some of the ``advocates'' of the homeless seem to be more a part of the problem than of the solution.

Efforts to conduct censuses of the homeless, for instance, have caused outcries when the numbers turned out smaller than some advocates predicted. Underscoring the politicization of the situation, New York Mayor Edward Koch has threatened to sue city hotels that refuse to accept homeless families being put up at city expense.

Those who feel the problems of the homeless will be solved by building more low-cost housing lock horns with those who insist that many of these people are mentally ill and need to be treated as such. ``Deinstitutionalization'' has been not so much discredited as never properly applied, this latter group holds. If the mentally ill are not to be in institutions, they still need counseling, sheltered living, and other services -- which have never really been funded.

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And all this is going on against a background of officially designated prosperity that still includes a joblessness rate of some 7 percent. The earnings of the median worker in the United States no longer suffice to support a middle-class life style, and while the most affluent fifth of society is doing very well, the bottom four-fifths have, over the past several years, barely held their own -- or lost ground. For many of the homeless, all it has taken has been an unexpected layoff, a house fire, or a serious illness to set off a chain of events which culminates with their ending up on the street. It comes down to the question of what sort of society we want to be. The dark side of the American emphasis on rugged individualism is a society that can seem very unforgiving -- especially of economic failure. Homelessness is not a problem to be resolved by any number of cots set up in armories. It needs long-term action, by the government and private sectors. Major housing and mental-health programs are going to cost serious money, presumably tax dollars. Is the American public prepared to insist that such money be found?

It's an issue to ponder as we go through clothes closets to retrieve armor against the winds of winter. Perhaps a coat or some other garment that wasn't worn last year will turn up -- and can be turned over to someone who can use the warmth.

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