Homelessness Defies Both Parties

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HOME for James Barnwell is a loading dock on downtown Houston's east side.

Blanket-draped shipping pallets wall off enough privacy for his cot, a wash tub, a Bible, and a handful of wildflowers in a cup. A cloth-covered pad makes a front porch, where the high school graduate and military veteran reclines in the breeze and reads about the Republican convention in a local newspaper.

"Too many people blame the president," says Mr. Barnwell, who lost his job as a cook after a disabling illness. "The president can't change all this," he says, gesturing at blocks of abandoned buildings that shade scores of destitute men who sleep away the day. Barnwell's pessimism is reflected in both parties' platforms, which call for continuing the fight against homelessness but omit bold statements that victory is possible or even that growth of the crisis can be slowed. Rising numbers

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Several blocks from Barnwell's abode, a dozen men lounge on a collection of ragged couches in front of another empty structure. When a worker approaches from the Star of Hope men's emergency shelter across the street, they berate him for taking away their shower and toilet privileges. "You make us live like animals," one bellows.

"They're right," the worker admits. He explains that when the shelter's water bill grew too large for its tightened budget, he had to turn the men away. "We just ran out of funds."

And no wonder: In the 12 months through June, the number of meals served by the Star of Hope mission rose 47 percent over the previous 12 months, says Kathy Tabor, the mission's director of development. The $4 million annual budget for the Star of Hope's five facilities "is never enough," she says.

A 1989 survey found 10,000 homeless people in Houston. Today the figure is 13,000 to 15,000, says Lynda Greene, who works with homeless people through a county agency. Workers at the men's shelter estimate that no more than 15 percent of their residents ever return to independent living.

Fred Karnas, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that poverty lies at the root of the problem. Thus, job losses from the weak economy are sending more people than ever to shelters, even as scarce work opportunities make it harder for current residents to work their way out.

The number of homeless Americans is difficult to quantify, Mr. Karnas says. The 1990 census found more than 200,000, but the White House relies on the Urban Institute's estimate of over 600,000. Karnas says he believes the true number is over 1 million.

The plight of veterans, who make up one-third of the homeless population, was briefly spotlighted at both parties' conventions when an honor guard from the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans led the pledge of allegiance. Little money available

But Karnas says, "We don't have a lot of friends" in Washington. Given the budget deficit and the election-year battle for the middle-class vote, he doesn't expect that to change.

Karnas says more money is needed for Section 8 subsidized housing. And the McKinney Act, which addresses emergency shelters, "needs to be undergirded with additional funding" when it comes up for reauthorization.

One of the biggest barriers to obtaining more funding to assist the homeless, he says, is the "budget wall" that doesn't allow money saved from defense cutbacks to be shifted to other purposes. "It's become a really convenient excuse for both sides of the aisle to say, `Well, we'd really like to help you out, but....' "

Tabor, who has worked with the homeless for 17 years, questions Washington's ability to address the problem. "When I see a battered woman bring her children into our shelter, personally I just don't know what George Bush could do to change that." She says homelessness has many causes, but at its root is disintegration of the family. Sounding like politicians from both parties, she says that "we've got to get back to the basics, where tradition and family are important."

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