New ways of addressing an old urban problem

Despite a strong economy, homelessness continues to rise in America. But boomtime dollars are helping cities engineer effective solutions.

Out on America's streets, the living is not as easy as the rollicking stock market and strong economy might indicate.

In fact, despite years of work and millions of dollars spent to eradicate it, homelessness in America is still on the rise - a defiant trend that persists even as other social ills are waning.

Moreover, it is this same boomtime economy - seen in the revival of many downtown districts - that is prompting cities to redouble efforts to get the homeless off the newly refurbished streets.

In some places, the response has been to send in the police, make arrests, and enact laws to crack down on begging. "There's a certain level of frustration ... it's hard for cities to know what to do," says Kelly Cunningham, an attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington.

But even as some cities try to shove the problem out of downtowns, many recognize such actions won't make homelessness go away. In a number of places across the nation, the quest for a more permanent solution is driving innovative experiments in helping the homeless.

Many know that the obvious answer - to find people housing they can afford - is not as simple as it seems.

"We do know how to end homelessness," says Philip Mangano of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance in Boston. In the past four years, Massachusetts has moved 5,000 people from shelters to permanent homes. The problem, Mr. Mangano says, is that "for every six people we move out the back door [into permanent housing], there are another seven waiting at the front door."

According to the US Conference of Mayors, requests for emergency shelter assistance were up 11 percent last year.

The No. 1 reason people are forced onto the streets is today's skyrocketing housing costs. "I don't think it's a big secret," says Robert Hess of the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore. "There's a lack of affordable housing and a lack of jobs that pay a living wage."

Last fall, a New York University study found that subsidized housing was the most effective way to get families off the streets.

But the massive concrete housing projects of previous decades are no longer an option. Instead, cities are trying a variety of programs, from financial incentives for developers to set aside homes as affordable housing, to huge building efforts like the one in Dallas, where the city has created 7,000 housing units.

Columbus, Ohio, another housing innovator, has committed to a $44 million plan to build 800 units to house the hundreds of homeless men being displaced by downtown renovation.

"We said, if we're going to move [the shelters], then we're going to come up with the best system possible to alleviate homelessness," says Matt White of the Community Shelter Board. The housing will be scattered throughout Columbus and will be coupled with services - such as weekly visits by a case worker or 24-hour supervision for those with severe mental-health needs.

Those kinds of support services are crucial when trying to help the more entrenched homeless population: the 24 percent of homeless diagnosed with mental illness or the 38 percent that abuse drugs and alcohol.

Then there are those who have turned the streets into a way of life. In front of Boston's Trinity Church - a block away from the posh shops on Newbury Street - a man named Shanti is one of a couple dozen people partaking of an outdoor lunch of soup, bread, and peanut butter provided by the group Food Not Bombs.

Shanti, a Vietnam veteran who lives in his car in nearby Cambridge, says he's been on the streets since 1985. An articulate man with a graying goatee and most of his teeth, he'd rather talk politics than his way of life - one he says he's chosen. He blames his current lack of a job "on rampant job discrimination" and says he voluntarily moved to the streets "to increase my income, because rents are so ridiculous."

Across the US, shelters are bursting - some with people who, critics say, have no business being there: the mentally ill, teens, and ex-convicts.

In 1997, Boston began offering beds to inmates who'd served their sentences and had nowhere to go. "One night they'd be sleeping in a correctional bed, and the next they'd be sleeping on a shelter cot," says Mangano.

Children now make up one-quarter of the homeless, and while most are with their families, unaccompanied teens are a growing segment of the population.

Many of these are former foster children who've been turned loose by the system. "All of a sudden they turn 18, and they're adults. They have no place to live, no one to care for them, and they have no skills," says Trudy Monroe-Signor of Shortstop, a Boston-area program that gives homeless teens a place to live while they go to college.

To help make the transition to adult responsibilities easier, California has a new program of supported living for 17-year-olds, where they learn to live alone while the safety net is still in place. San Francisco is looking into letting teens stay in foster homes past their 18th birthday.

San Francisco also is trying to keep families from homelessness in the first place. One program, new this month, taps Realtors to find homes families can afford - and covers the first month's rent and the security deposit.

"The good news," says Steve Burger of the International Union of Gospel Missions, "is that we're seeing a real emphasis in walking people back into the community. Not just giving them a place to sleep and food to eat, but equipping them to deal with the issues in their lives."

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