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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Molly Ivins December 8, 2005

Aunt Eula wrote from Fort Worth, Texas, to inform me that in 1954, 50,000 reindeer migrated from Lapland to Finland. An interesting seasonal note, but the most interesting thing about it is that we know it. Someone counts migrating reindeer so we know if they're up, down or holding steady. Try getting an accurate count of the homeless in America.

You can find an estimate for New York City -- serendipitously enough, it is 50,000, the same as the migrating reindeer of '54. After that, we start wandering up the scale -- 250,000 across the country, 1 million, multiples of 1 million. No one actually knows. Obviously, at least some students of this problem are off in their count by at least 1 million.

Oh, no! I hear your vast collective groan -- not another Christmas Column on the Homeless! Well, you know how it is with us liberals, we just can't help ourselves -- like Dr. Strangelove, our hands rise involuntarily, despite our best intentions, and write these Christmas Columns on the Homeless, thus managing to be boring and trite simultaneously, laying our liberal guilt all over an unwilling general populace. But grit your teeth and soldier on, if you will, in seasonal goodwill.

Not only do we not know how many Americans are homeless, we don't know much about those who are. The most common form of denial about homeless people is that they deserve to be where they are. They're drunks, winos, bums, addicts. Their condition is self-inflicted and thus not our fault. We have no responsibility. It's not my fault, I'm all right, Jack.

The concept of addiction as a treatable disease has not made that much progress, despite the best efforts of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council. Many of us still think these are the Undeserving Poor. (Wouldn't you think some sociologist would have done a comparative study by now to prove, as I have always suspected, that there is a higher proportion of Undeserving Rich than Undeserving Poor?)

But we know there is an additional admixture in our homeless population now -- one there, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, because of one of those brave, new, liberal social experiments gone wrong.

Lots of nut cases are on the streets these days as a consequence of the movement in the '60s and '70s to deinstitutionalize people who are not dangerously insane. Since it was incredibly expensive as well as counterproductive to keep those folks incarcerated, it seemed like a good idea at the time to let them go home and get treatment there. And as liberals never tire of pointing out, the reason deinstitutionalization was such a failure is because the chintzy conservatives in the legislatures never appropriated enough money for community-based mental-health care.

As a result, we have nut cases on the streets getting no care, some of whom are quite dangerous because they get no care. For all our brave, new sophistication about mental illness, many of us still react to crazy people with primitive fear -- don't get close, you might catch it.

Blame and fear. The trouble is, not only have blame and fear never built a single unit of low-cost housing, they don't cover the situation anymore.

All recent studies of homeless populations show an increase of two groups out on the streets -- families and people with full-time jobs.

You may well ask why we should pay any attention to studies done by the same people who can't even get a firm count on how many people we're talking about, but the consistency of the results makes them hard to ignore.

About one-third of the homeless are now families, and about one-fourth work full-time for the minimum wage. Their problem is simple: They can't afford housing. So is the solution -- build more low-cost housing.

Perhaps it is precisely because of the studies showing that the majority of American families are only a couple of paychecks away from the street themselves that we resist thinking about this. That's how denial works: The closer we get to whatever frightens us, the more vigorously we deny that it will touch us.

In several localities, we have now reached the apogee of idiocy by trying to outlaw the homeless.

Some of our professional hand-holders of the middle-class have lately been worried about "compassion burnout." What with everything going on in the world, it is feared that the American public will wear itself to a frazzle worrying aboout others, resulting in a general concern shortage.

As I have yet to witness an overabundance of concern for our fellow citizens now freezing to death on the streets of America, compassion burnout is not high on my list of priorities.

It is not often that we have a major public problem to which there is a simple solution. During the Reagan years, about $3 billion was cut from low-income housing programs, and homelessness, amazingly enough, grew apace. Three billion is peanuts in the context of the military budget. We know what to do, we know the solution is not particularly costly, and her we are, doing what?

"Hark!" -- the traditional beginning of the Christmas message of joy -- is, according to my Aunt Eula, the start of a message that has gotten garbled in translation.


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