Workfare for the Homeless?

New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is giving a new slant to "compassionate conservatism" with his plan to evict from city-run shelters those homeless people who are judged able to work, but choose not to. He likens this move to the push toward "workfare" instead of welfare.

His idea may inspire other cities to follow suit, so it's worth looking at it closely. This Republican mayor has been given due credit for many programs that have put shine back on the Big Apple.

The thrust of this latest social engineering has some appeal. The dignity of work is vital for people, the homeless included. But Mr. Giuliani's plan to promote work among those homeless who are judged able-bodied and mentally sound - by forcing them out of shelters unless they're willing to work - will require careful implementation.

A fundamental challenge here, as with welfare-to-work campaigns, is that the people involved are diverse. Not all the homeless, anymore than all welfare recipients, are capable of making a quick move to work. A survey by the US Conference of Mayors indicates that 24 percent of the homeless have a drug-addiction problem; 34 percent are mentally ill. Assessing who can reasonably be expected to work, and who can't, won't be easy.

In New York, officials already apply a "needs test" to those seeking shelter. The work requirement, presumably, would toughen the screening process.

One group that would get close scrutiny are single mothers. Many draw welfare checks and already work in exchange for that support. If a parent judged capable of working doesn't, and is barred from a shelter, the city will face a difficult decision concerning her children. In extreme cases, the parent could be judged negligent and her children placed in foster care. The city's main concern, according to statements by its commissioner for children's services, is that young children not be put out on the street even if it means separating them from their mothers.

Homeless men with no dependents could present their own dilemmas. New York plans more intensive screening of these individuals and hopes to move many into job-search programs.

In every case, a human life - or where children are involved, a number of lives - will be strongly affected. That's why Giuliani's plan bears scrutiny. If the program is thoughtfully administered it could be a model for helping a least a portion of the homeless population (on any given night, about 750,000 people nationwide) find greater stability.

If it's applied without close attention to individual circumstances, some lives could be plunged even deeper into chaos. As with welfare reform, this is a project worth pursuing, but with the clear recognition that it will require more effort, more investment of time, thought, and probably money, than sticking with the status quo.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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