Needs of winter's homeless

AS yet another winter approaches, the needs of the homeless return to public consciousness. A few years ago homelessness was thought to be a temporary phenomenon, a cruel but short-lived throwback to the Great Depression.

But now it is apparent that the tide of economic recovery over the past few years has not lifted all boats; many low- or semiskilled jobs, particularly in manufacturing industries, have vanished forever. And the prosperity that has eluded those who are consequently jobless has also pushed housing costs ever higher. Boston, for example, is expected to lose some 3,500 rental apartments to condominium conversion this year.

As a result, major cities continue to have thousands of homeless people. A recent study done by the US Department of Health and Human Services estimated the numbers of the homeless to be 250,000 to 300,000 -- and this was a study criticized in some quarters for playing the problem down. In many cases, the new face of homelessness is a child's face. Children under 16 are now the largest group of the homeless in New York City. General economic pressure on those on the low end of the wage scale has also l ed to another phenomenon: the employed homeless. In some cases, even two-paycheck families are not able to keep a roof over their heads.

The homeless are a diverse group, with diverse needs for counseling and other services, especially the deinstitutionalized mentally ill, who make up a substantial minority of the homeless.

But the basic need is for more low-income housing, including better ``marketing'' of current programs. Reservations of federal funds for subsidized housing programs fell from $24.6 billion in fiscal 1980 to $13.5 billion last year. The government should revive its housing program.

There is an (ironic) saving grace to all this that may help get the problem solved: Housing costs are squeezing so many people that the corporate community is hurting. Employers are losing good people who can't find suitable housing in revved-up real estate markets like Boston. This is drawing attention to the housing issue.

Meanwhile, shelters and soup kitchens are critical to getting the homeless safely through the winter. Many cities are gearing up for this short-term effort. Still, more needs to be done to develop smaller, dormitory-like shelters, which authorities are learning are safer and more humane, and hence more effective, than the cavernous 1,000-bed shelters at armories.

But such winter-by-winter steps should not become the long-term minimum for meeting the needs of the homeless for shelter.

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