Beyond Shelter

A HOMELESS shelter in the spring. The words and images contrast gratingly. On this particular balmy day outside a Boston shelter, men and women bask in separate courtyards. Whiskey bottles glint in the sun - but aren't allowed inside. There's a muted sense of relief that winter is over. But for the homeless, spring and summer have worries too, since crime and violence against them increases in warm months.

In the past year, the homeless issue hasn't received much press. This is partly because the sudden, exponential rise in homelessness in the mid-to-late 1980s has leveled off - at least in the Northeast, where the big media machines define stories.

Also, more shelters have been set up. More homeless now have a dry and warm place to rest their heads. Agencies like the Pine Street Inn in Boston, which spent most of their time in the late '80s simply reacting to growing ranks of needy, can now think in terms of helping the homeless move ``beyond shelter'' - the phrase used to describe efforts to return people to society.

``Beyond shelter'' should become the homeless rallying cry for the 1990s.

This is not to suggest the problem of homelessness is less pressing. It was a relief to read that David Cohen, an official of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, has affirmed that federal money allotted for community housing would not be tied to recent census data on homelessness. The census data, showing 230,000 homeless in the US, are controversial both for the methodology and the low figure. Other studies put the number at 500,000 to 600,000 persons. Federal, state, and local governme nts need at least to hold steady on spending for homelessness.

The character and demographics of the problem have fundamentally changed. Two decades ago, the homeless were mainly skid-row alcoholics. Rough estimates now show that about 40 percent of the homeless are mentally disabled, a result of the deinstitutionalization of mental patients. About 40 to 45 percent are drug and alcohol abusers. A new fast-rising category, 10 to 15 percent, are economically dislocated. More homeless are elderly. More are women and children.

In the 1990s, efforts to deal with the problem must move past the liberal-versus-conservative split of the 1980s.

The liberal notion that the homeless mainly need housing is shortsighted and simplistic. As one advocate argues, ``An apartment does not cure a crack cocaine addiction.''

On the other hand, the conservative assumption that people are homeless by choice (blaming the victim) also misses the mark. First, it doesn't solve anything. Second, it is usually wrong.

The most promising proposals both for shelter and beyond put government funds in the hands of private groups that do better and cheaper work. Job training, drug counseling, and teaching people to read are fundamental to bringing about positive changes in the lives of many homeless.

Government funds are scarce at present. Homelessness must vie at the federal level with worthy proposals such as full funding for Head Start. At the state and local level homelessness competes with prenatal care, roads, schools, and prisons.

Private help is needed. Everything from donations of clothes to donations of prayers are needed to reverse this imposition on the dignity of man. The axiom is still true: A society is judged by how it treats its poor.

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