Reader Digest Magazine


Reader Digest Article June, 1992 
By Robert James Bidinotto 

Dan McMurry was puzzled. Nightly, it seemed, he watched news broadacast about "Homeless Families mothers, father, and children living in cars or on the streets. These families were said to be victims of economic dislocation and federal>

Budget cuts. But McMurry, a sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University, had studies the transient population for years, and found very few homeless families. His courosity aroused, McMurry took a leave of absence in 1987 and criss crossed the nation, poising as a homeless person. Over 18 months he visited more than 20 communities from big cities like New York and Washington, D.C. to small ones like Richfield, Utah He wore clothes issued by local charities. He ate in soup kitchens with silent,brooding strangers. He slept on the streets. McMurry found aging alcholics of the sort he had long seen on skidrow. He found mentally disturbed people, runaway kids, cocaine addicts, and street criminals. But he found virtually non intact families Almost a decade after homeless-

ness began to attract national attention, the public is still struggling to get a clear understanding of this heart-rending, multibillion dollar blight. The truth has been shrounded in fallacies, and misinterpretations. But thanks to people like McMurry, we now have enough information to see what is true and what is not. Here are four major myths about the homeless: Myth A: Homeless numbers in the millions: We've got three million people living on the streets Declared Carol Fennell of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a homeless-advocacy group, on MacNeil/Lehrer news hour last December. This daunting figure, which first appeared in 1982, is till being cited by various advocacy groups, by the media, and by members of Congress. But it's not true After reviewing scores of studies, Peter H. Rossi Director of Social and Demographic Research Institute at University of Massachusetts, put the total number of homeless at 500,000 to 600,000. That is still far too many people without homes, of course, but only a fraction of three million. Where did the three million figure come from? "They picked it out of the air" contends Ann Kondratas, Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Frankly", write the Rev. Mark Holsinger, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Mission, The numbers have often been inflated to attract government funding.

Myth 2: Many of the homeless are traditional families:It is widely reported that families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. In reality, these "Homeless Families" are almost never husband and wives with kids in tow. A nationwide study by the Urban Institute in Washington D.C.concluded that homeless families are over whelmingly married mothers with children, on some for of public assistance. "Homelessness" writes demographer Rossi, "It is almost identical with spouselessness."Cindy 23, lived in a large, poor family in South Bend Ind. never married, she had her first baby at 17 and quit school. After a second child by a different father, she got her own apartment. But Cindy spent her welfare checks on restaurant meals, makeup and clothes. She was quickly evicted for nonpayment of rent and ended up in a shelter with her daughters. According to Rev. Rollie Rrauman and his wife, Bonnie who run the Nashville Union Mission's Shelter for women and children, Cindy is like almost all the mothers they try to help. It's their undisciplined life-style, that got them into trouble, "Says Grauman".

Myth 3: The Homeless are working people who got unlucky

"Most of them are like the people we all know in our families and our communities," New York Governor Mario Cuomo testified in 1987 before a Congressional Subcommittee. "They are homeless because they are unemployed, because of chronic poverty, or simply because of the nationwide shortage of affordable housing." The Media have reinforced this image. "Simply, suddenly poor"
Is how Mike Wallace characterized them on 60 minutes a few years ago. "They cannot pay the rent, cannot find a place to live." Members of the working or middle class" is how Peter Marin descirbed them in Harper's. There are of course, some families who do lose their houses or apartments because of joblessness or other misfortunes. Their problems, however are usually temporary. They get back on their feet and find housing on their own relatively quickly But major homelessness surveys such as those by Rossi or the Urban Institute -Find that Most of the chronically homeless are single or unattached men. At least one third of them abuse alcohol or drugs, and a third or more are troubled by mental-health problems. Over a fifth have served time in prison. Most haven't held a steady job for years. Typically of these individuals is Jerry, who prefers the nickname "Steamboat" while investigative homelessness, I met him at an alcohol rehabilitation center in rural Tennessee, a scarred, burly man with a prison record, steamboat moves from town to town, supplementing his social security disability income by panhandling and shoplifting. He spends much of money on cheap liquor and blames his drinking problem on two failed marriages. When things get tight, he uses local shelter services, then moves on. A few days after our conversation, steamboat quit the rehabilitation program and vanished. Fred Hoffman, who runs the Nashville Union Missions Education and Job Training Program, describes such men as "tumbleweeds-lone drifters whose problems are personal, not economic." Many of them are mentally ill. Harvard Univesity Medical School of Psychiatric Researcher Ellen Bassuk worked with homeless people in Boston. More than a third suffer from chronic mental illness, including schizophrenia and severe personality disorder. She says. A detailed clinical survey of Baltmiore's homeless By Researcher from John Hopkins University School of Medicine discovered that over 40 precent of the men and about half of the women suffered from a major mental illness. Why so many? Because in the 1960's civil rights lawsuits forced state mental hospitals to release patients back to local mental hospitals to release patients back to local communities. Today it is extremely difficult to have mentally incompetent people institutionalized. Tragically, many of them fail to take prescribed medications or attend therapy sessions and end up roaming the streets, behaving erratically.

Occassionally, the violent among them commit shocking crimes. Juan Gonzales was sent to New York's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center after warning staffers at the shelter that:

"Jesus wants me to kill" Given a prescription for medication, he was released back to the streets. Two days later, Gonzales stabbed 11 people aboud the Staten Island Ferry, two fatally. Many other mentally ill are targets. "A lot of them are robbed and victimized almost continually"

Says John Sacco, a Community Service Officer for the Boston Police Department. "They have become a source of income for drug users"

Myth 4: The solution is more housing: "There is a three word solution to homelessness," Says Robert Hays, FormerDirector of the National Coaliton for the Homeless, has written: "Housing, Housing, Housing." To shelter all those out on the street, according to Senator Edward Kennedy (D. Mass) "We have got to build about 2.5 million units of affordable housing" Many homeless-advocacy groups have pressured cities, State legislatures and courts to declare a legal "Right to housing. That's a dangerous mistake" Says Thomas Main of Rutgers University Institutie for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research."Combining a right to shelter with overly generous shelter policies simply draws more families into the system, and makes them dependent wards of the state" Last year for instance, New York made a priority of moving people more quickly out of welfare hotels (part of the City's Shelter System) and into subsidized housing. "We were unwittingly created an incentive for some people who lived doubled-up with other family members to come into the shelter system." Explains Jeffrey L. Carples an Executive Deputy Commissioner of the City's Human Resources Administration. Young single mothers left their parents apartments in order to get into one of their own. "People who weren't homeless were becoming homeless,"Carples reports. "Since the great majority of homeless are afflicted with behavioral or medical disabilities or both," Concludes Main, "Lack of housing isn't their most basic problem" They Would be hard pressed to keep a home if they recieved one". Adds the Reverend Holsinger of the Los Angeles Mission. Because most of the chronically homeles have serious problem, getting them off the streets will not be easy. But it is not impossible. "There are many programs that help homeless people return to a measure of self sufficiency," Says Robert Ellickson, Professor of Urban Law at Yale University Law School "but too often we aren't supporting good programs because were wasting our money on things that don't work". Heres what we can do that does work:

If we had a system in place to provide care for these people, "says Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, Author of Nowhere to Go, About the Homeless Mentally Ill, "we would almost instantly remove a third of the adult homeless from out streets"....."Obviously ill patients should get treatment with proper procedural and due process safeguards, before they become dangerous".

In Santa Monica, Californa, a rising number of rapes and robberies have been attributed to transients.... In city after city, parks, streets, even whole neighborhoods have become camping grounds for the homeless.....

In many cities, huge, chaotic, crime-infected shelters provide food, clothes, and sleeping space without asking for even minimally responsible behavior in return. Good shelters have strict rules and tie assistance to responsible behavior..... "Shelters should be temporary and transitional and not a permanent way of life" Says the Reverend F. Dickson Marshal, The Mission's Director.There are a growing number of small well-run shelters around the country They offer the best hope for getting homeless people off the streets for good. "We have to tie even basic services, like food and shelter to behavior", says Sociologist Dan McMurry. "We must tell the alcholic, drug addict, or panhandler, "you can't stay or eat here unless you agree to change the way you live." The homeless problem can only be solved by confronting it's basic underlying cause-mental illness, addiction, and chronic dependency.