Homeless Problem Tests Public Sympathy

Number of vagrants has increased, but charitable giving has not kept pace

JUST off San Pedro Street here, a woman carrying holiday packages steps over feet protruding from a cardboard box. Glancing ahead past dozens of recumbent figures in doorways and alleys, she adjusts her scarf to block her peripheral vision. Her pace quickens past outstreched hands.

The holiday season is traditionally the time of year when many homeless shelters gather most of their donations. But this year, some homeless advocates say giving is down - a trend they attribute to decreasing public sympathy for the thousands of people who live on the streets of major United States cities.

"Citizens are feeling a greater impact of homeless in their communities and are more frustrated and less sympathetic," says Jeff Schaffer, associate director of Shelter Partnership, an umbrella organization for 180 shelters in the Los Angeles area. Vagrancy increases

Since 1987, Mr. Schaffer says, the homeless community in Los Angeles has grown by 16 percent a year, reaching an estimated 204,000 people last year - almost equal to the number in New York City, which has the nation's largest number of homeless people. While the number of shelters has also increased, he says it has not kept up with the rising number of homeless.

"Public giving is falling further and further behind in its capacity to deal with increasing homelessness," Schaffer says.

It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to pin down the exact number of homeless people in the US because it is, by definition, a transient population that varies greatly during different seasons of the year.

The Census Bureau tallied 459,209 homeless people at 30,000 sites around the US in 1990. But advocacy groups dispute that figure as a low-ball estimate. The National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., for example, claims the number of homeless people ranges from 600,000 to 3 million.

Few involved in the debate, however, dispute the fact that there is a substantial homeless population - and that most Americans are increasingly frustrated by their plight.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll, for instance, showed that a majority of those surveyed have seen homeless people in their own communities, and have been upset by the experience.

This has led many cities across the country to reverse previously lenient policies on homelessness. The trend began in May 1990, when Washington, D.C., weakened an ordinance that had once guaranteed shelter to anyone requesting it.

Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta followed suit with legal crackdowns against loitering, public drunkenness, and panhandling.

Atlanta officials used new laws to arrest more than 100 homeless people last year during a visit by the International Olympic Committee, which ultimately decided to make Atlanta the host city for the 1996 Olympic Games.

The trend has reached even those cities that were once the most accommodating to the homeless. In September, the Santa Monica, Calif., City Council voted 6 to 1 to dismiss City Attorney Robert Myers, who had refused to draft an ordinance restricting outdoor feeding programs for the city's growing homeless population.

The surprising reversal from a liberal governing board in a city long derided by conservatives as the "People's Republic of Santa Monica" was attributable to citizens' complaints about a rising crime rate. From January to August 1992, 69 percent of those arrested for burglary in Santa Monica were homeless. Five transients also had been apprehended in the well-publicized beating and robbery of an ABC News correspondent.

Cities' attempts to crack down on homelessness may already have triggered a small backlash, however.

In Miami, a federal judge last month sparked national controversy by ordering the city to create "safe zones" where the homeless can sleep, bathe, and cook without fear of arrest. Judge C. Clyde Atkins scolded police and public officials in his ruling, writing that "arresting the homeless for harmless, involuntary, life-sustaining acts" violated the Constitution.

Miami leaders were outraged by the decision, with Mayor Xavier Suarez promising the city would appeal "any part of the ruling that implies or states we cannot relocate the homeless for their own safety or that of other citizens."

But legal experts expect the Miami decision to be cited in cases under way in more than 20 US cities - including San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Chicago - where homeless advocates are challenging ordinances on vagrancy, begging, and curfews.

"The Miami ruling will very significantly help in legal battles where homeless have been harassed or had property destroyed simply because they are homeless," says Richard Novak, directing attorney of the Homeless Youth Project in Los Angeles.

At the root of the growing debate over homelessness is the question of why people become homeless - and how they can be taken off the streets. Some argue that government has turned its back on the impoverished, while others hold that a more permissive society is to blame.

Rene Heybach, a lawyer with the Chicago Legal Assistance Foundation, blames the Reagan and Bush administrations for the problem.

"We have had 12 years of cuts to funding for affordable housing, drug and alcohol treatment, mental and public health facilities and other support services," she says. "It's no coincidence that homeless numbers have grown." A complex problem

But Mark Holsinger, executive director of the Los Angeles Mission, says that "the causes of homelessness are complex, we've found it's never just one problem.... That's why there is no quick fix."

Mr. Holsinger, who has worked with vagrants for 27 years, suggests that "society increasingly condones homelessness" by tolerating broken homes and fatherless households that breed instability.

Other observers blame local housing policies - for example, rent control and strict zoning regulations - for contributing to the homeless problem. In recent years, developers across the United States have converted thousands of single-room occupancy hotels that once harbored those hovering near the poverty line into condominiums.

Added grist for the debate over homelessness comes from a Gallup poll released last week.

The study, which interviewed hundreds of homeless people on L.A.'s skid row, suggested that not all people without homes come from the ranks of the urban poor. Twenty-six percent of the 655 men and women interviewed for the study said they had either attended college or received a college degree.

"This study underlines that having a good education alone in these times is no guarantee you won't end up without a home." says Elaine Christiansen, the survey director.

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