<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> govofficials



National AFSC Website AFSC Economic Justice site Create Peace at Home (BOSS)

Government Officials Have No Solutions for Poverty

Eliminating chronic U.S. homelessness will require revolutionary reforms

Story and photo by Robert L. Terrell

Standard text version


Sooner or later, a critical mass of the U.S. populace will come to understand that chronic homelessness is a virulently dangerous social cancer that must be eliminated. In the interim, everyone needs to understand that building the coalition necessary for accomplishing the task of eliminating homelessness will not prove easy. This is due to numerous factors, not the least of them being tradition, graft, ignorance, insufficient courage and inadequate imagination.

Furthermore, it should be understood that chronic homelessness is such a complicated problem that it cannot be eliminated without the implementation of comprehensive reforms that have revolutionary ramifications.

If the problem is to be eliminated, much more attention will need to be devoted to matters such as child rearing, healthcare, education, job training and substantial revisions in the nation's dated, tattered, poorly understood and abysmally administered social contract.

More attention will also need to be devoted to the relationship between people and government. This is so for at least two reasons. The first is the fact that the current relationship between people and government regarding serious, endemic social problems such as chronic homelessness engenders too much uncritical passivity by citizens.

As a result, in far too many communities around the nation, government officials are provided too much unchecked, unmonitored, uncoordinated, unsuccessful authority to manage chronic homelessness. This is the case despite the fact that, in the vast majority of circumstances, the government officials and agencies involved have established an unbroken record of three decades of overwhelming failure with regard to chronic homelessness.

One does not have to assert that government officials are corrupt, uncaring or seriously inept in order to make the case that their current efforts are failing, and that radical reforms are in order if substantive progress is to be achieved regarding the elimination of chronic homelessness.

The key point to be understood where this particular aspect of the chronic homelessness problem is concerned is that much of the apparatus of government as it is currently structured and administered in this nation is not suited to eliminating any serious social problem as broad, endemic and complex as chronic homelessness. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that much of the money currently being spent on homeless people is not, and will not, produce an end to homelessness, which is inexorably expanding in every sector of the nation.

The federal government does not have a comprehensive plan to eliminate chronic homelessness, and neither do the states and major municipalities. At best, the plans currently in use are intended to service the problem. Few if any such plans go upstream, as it were, to address in a comprehensive manner the fundamental sources of homelessness.

Moreover, there are no notable plans afoot that require county, municipal, state and national units of government tasked with addressing chronic homelessness to coordinate their efforts via a Comprehensive National Master Plan.

It seems reasonable to assume that homelessness in the United States will not be substantially curbed, and certainly not eliminated, until such a plan is developed and implemented. But is it also certain that such steps will not be taken until and unless a much broader coalition of citizens take note, and get involved in a manner which creates an unavoidable demand for substantial reforms regarding the nation's approach to this problem.

Those uncertain as to how such a coalition might prove effective should devote serious attention to the stunning, recent activities in the Ukraine, not to mention the inspirational manner in which irrepressible senior citizens recently engineered an unprecedented government retreat by the Russian government regarding their retirement benefits.

In order to highlight the nature of the challenge before us, it seems appropriate to focus in this article on the people in government responsible for administering the nation's affairs regarding chronic homelessness. In subsequent articles, I will address other dimensions of that challenge, including budgeting criteria, the service provider industry, racism, education, globalization and the debilitating costs of ill-fated delusions of empire.

Currently, primary responsibility for coordinating the nation's business regarding homelessness is vested in politicians, and the units of government they ostensibly manage. Unfortunately, very few of the politicians who possess the power and authority to lead the campaign required to eliminate chronic homelessness are up to the task. Moreover, there are few indications that the vast majority of them even understand the problem, let alone possess coherent ideas about how to get rid of it.

President Bush can be cited as a representative example of the problem. During his first term in office, he devoted scant attention to homelessness, despite the fact that the White House tends to be virtually surrounded by the multitudes of homeless people who inhabit the nation's capital.

President Bush's announced agenda for his second term suggests that he remains locked in the traditional mode of the political elite: devoting primary attention to the needs and desires of the wealthy and well off. Homelessness expanded during his first term, and every indication at this point is that it will continue to metastasize largely unabated during the next four years.

Bush rarely even mentioned chronic homelessness during his recent run for a second term in office. And if I am correct, he hasn't mentioned it since Election Day. In all fairness, he probably has opinions about chronic homelessness, and I would be surprised if he hasn't given a nod to the problem via budgetary allocations.

Nonetheless, the fact that chronic homelessness is not one of Bush's top priorities is undeniably clear. His most important thoughts are directed toward other matters, including foreign military adventures, whose long-term fiscal impact will almost certainly ratchet up the number of homeless people in this country.

California's governor is a self-selected victim of the same mode of tradition-bound, unbalanced thinking regarding chronic social problems characteristic of President Bush. The same is true of the vast majority of legislators, mayors, judges and other elected and appointed officials who preside over the nation's public affairs.

Lest I leave myself vulnerable to the unfounded allegation that I am only conscious of the shortcomings of conservative members of the ruling elite, I should note that liberals also have a sorry record of evasion, incompetence and failure regarding chronic homelessness.

California is an allegedly liberal state, but its record regarding chronic homelessness is not categorically superior to the ones established by conservative states. Some might note that California is different from conservative states because it spends more money per capita on the problem than many of them, and because it sponsors an incomparably broad array of services for homeless people.

This is true. But it is also true that programs that simply service homeless victims are categorically inferior to those that accomplish its elimination. Moreover, here in California, where liberals have dominated government for decades, chronic homelessness is endemic in every major city, and too many small ones to list.

One should also note that here in California, as is the case in many other states across the nation where government is dominated by liberals, homelessness is a distinguished source of employment for those who have the good fortune to garner financial support from liberal politicians, and their patronage-dispensing cadres.

Finally, as regards to the shortcomings of government, I think it imperative to note that these days neither conservative nor liberal spokespersons talk about eliminating homelessness. They have already given up on that goal, even though most indications are that the problem is worsening.

The seriousness of this surrender is underscored by the fact that very few representatives of the political elite have anything noteworthy to say about steps that need to be taken to minimize, if not eliminate, the sources of chronic homelessness. As a result, steps that should be taken to help those currently on the socioeconomic treadmill toward homelessness and street-side living are not being taken.

There are numerous historical precedents for our current situation. For example, during the last years of China's Manchu Dynasty, the society was in dire need of leadership by educated people functioning in a rational manner. Unfortunately, China was led at the time by a coterie of essentially clueless, aristocratic figures, who had been trained to govern a social order far different from the one they inherited.

Moreover, the vast majority of the finely clothed, handsomely compensated aristocrats were not emotionally or intellectually predisposed to implement the sorts of reforms that might have preserved the dynasty as it attempted the difficult task of responding to the arrival of modernity via legions of aggressive foreign armies, mendacious missionaries and wickedly efficient Western economic practices.

While the aristocrats dithered in confusion about what to do, the dynasty collapsed. This catastrophic outcome thrust China into civil war, social chaos and revolutionary turmoil for the next half century.

For better or worse, the United States is faced with a set of critical problems and dire prospects ominously similar to those that prevailed in China immediately prior to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty.

For example, here in the United States, as was the case in late Manchu China, a huge, essentially unbridgeable economic gulf has emerged between the common people and those who occupy the top rungs of the nation's steeply hierarchical social order. As was the case with their Manchu counterparts, the ruling elite is distracted by idle modes of consumption, while wasting astonishingly large sums of money on whimsical military adventures.

And maybe most important, as was the case during the last days of the Manchu Dynasty, the nation's social and economic problems are being severely exacerbated because of dislocations engendered by new, devastatingly efficient economic forces controlled from abroad. The Chinese eventually came to refer to those economic forces as Western imperialism. Their contemporary equivalent is known here in the United States as globalization.

Thus, many formerly comfortably middle-class U.S. families are sinking inexorably into poverty, and an ominously growing number of poor people have been reduced to living and dying in the streets. The key point to be understood is that there is little substantive difference between a poor, homeless person dying on the streets of San Francisco today and a Chinese coolie doing the same thing a century ago along a fetid Shanghai roadway.

Faced with an escalating social crisis, the wealthy aristocrats at the pinnacle of China's steeply hierarchical social order didn't have the slightest idea about what to do to rectify the situation; and sooner or later we are going to have to acknowledge that the same is true of our contemporary aristocrats.

Furthermore, it should be noted that there is little in the personal and social backgrounds of the men and women who dominate the top decision-making positions in the U.S. government that one might cite as a potential source of wisdom regarding solutions to complicated social problems deeply rooted in atavistic traditions, poverty, abuse, inadequate education, obsolete job skills, untended health problems and poor nutrition.

Each of these complicated problems is being exacerbated by unprecedented economic competition from abroad. Thus, it is probably reasonable to assume that the winds of change currently undermining the fiscal viability of this nation's most economically vulnerable classes will exert an increasingly devastating impact during the years immediately ahead.

Given this, it is imperative that we implement radically different approaches to the task of eliminating chronic homelessness. But this cannot be accomplished unless and until a much larger swath of the U.S. populace comes to understand that this metastasizing problem is evidence that our society is engaged in a poorly understood, and generally unacknowledged, socioeconomic meltdown.

More people also need to understand that the vast majority of the political eunuchs currently in charge of the levers of authority and decision-making in government are not up to the task before them as regards to homelessness.

This means that more citizens must get actively involved in the process of developing the priorities and programs necessary for eliminating this social cancer. The longer it takes for this to occur, the more serious the problem will become.

If we wait too long to move in this direction, our current social order, or dynasty if you will, shall almost certainly end up ensconced in the same dustbin of history that currently contains the dismal, discarded remains of its Manchu predecessor.



1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612

© 2002-2005 STREET SPIRIT. All rights reserved.

Published by American Friends Service Committee
Editor, Layout, Design:
Terry Messman