24 January 2006

When Having More Homeless Is A Good Thing

It sounds rather counter-intuitive to say that Boston's nine percent rise in homelessness might be a good thing both for the city and its homeless. And, indeed, it would be a much better sign for our society had the numbers gone down. But the jump in the counted number is not necessarily a jump in actual people. Rather, those who would have evaded the system by living in cramped conditions bordering on unsafe are now participating the city's expanded care, such as increased access to shelters and transitional programs. It is not the best of circumstances, admittedly, but it is better than pretending that the additional 350-plus people aren't out there to begin with, or doing nothing to assist them in what is clearly a time of great need.

Last year, the State Legislature passed a bill that raised the assistance level to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 100 percent. While in some places this might be too generous (though I'm not one so inclined), Massachusetts --- particularly Boston --- has an inflated housing market and dollars simply don't stretch as far here. For instance:
The average monthly wage for families who have jobs and are living in shelters is $1,200, said Stephanie Brown, executive director of Homes for Families. But the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Boston is $1,266.
This is a tough market to live in if you're making nearly twice that as a household. Given the above numbers, it is impossible to make it at that level. The situation is further compounded by the recent drop in federal housing subsidies (opting for the elusive-to-the-lower-class "ownership society") and state rental vouchers.

Mayor Menino, in what is not a particularly apt metaphor but one that does connect on a certain emotional level named homelessness "our Katrina." In many ways the systemic issues that preceded Katrina, such as underfunding, poor or non-existent planning, and governmental neglect, do ring true to the situation. And also, our Katrina is a tragedy, albeit one that we see peripherally every day rather than one that explodes into our conciousness in a single moment. The differences are more numerous than the similarities, yet, the similarities are important enough to bear mentioning.

Menino made the comparison in the first place because he suggests using the remnants of the 25 million dollars set aside in the Massachusetts budget for Katrina victims. Governor Romney's office was, as always, vague and non-committal, mentioning that "unspent money in the budget is routinely returned to the general fund for future expenditures."

It's no easy choice between helping those whose lives were shattered in an instant and those who have been living quiet lives of desperation. In the best of all worlds, we could help both. I'm tempted to think that Massachusetts money should help Massachusetts families, and that we could make a real dent in recovering from our Katrina with those funds; of course, I also don't know anyone personally affected by Hurricane Katrina. But it will take more than throwing money at the problem of homelessness to bring it to an end, or at least greatly reduce it. Restoring (or increasing) previous levels of rent subsidies and increasing continuing education and child care programs would be a good start, but such measures would be far from a complete solution.

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