Praise for the late President Ronald Reagan's sunny resonance with
the common man has been rasping all week on the ears of many activists and
social workers who watched in vain as homelessness exploded under his watch -- and they hope the history books remember one thing:
Before Reagan, people sleeping in the street were so rare that, outside
of skid rows, they were almost a curiosity. After eight years of Reaganomics -
- and the slashes in low-income housing and social welfare programs that went
along with it -- they were seemingly everywhere.
And America had a new household term: "The homeless."
"I don't think he was a bad guy, but I think he thought the private
charity system could address homelessness. And he was wrong," said Michael
Stoops, co-founder in 1981 of the National Coalition for the Homeless in
Washington, D.C., which he still helps direct. "He was a Robin Hood in reverse,
who took from the poor and gave to the rich, and I think Americans have such
short attention spans they forget this."
He was a catastrophe. He was single-handedly responsible for homelessness as we know it today -- and he did it to feed
the wealthy and the Pentagon.
Terry Messman, homeless activist
Reagan's supporters don't quite see it this way, of course, but his
critics say the single most powerful thing Reagan did to create homelessness
was to cut the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by
three-quarters, from $32.2 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion by 1988. The
department was the main governmental supporter of subsidized housing for the
poor and, combined with the administration's overhaul of tax codes to reduce
incentives for private developers to create low-income homes, the nation took
a hit to its stock of affordable housing from which it has yet to recover,
During the same period, the average family income of the poorest fifth of
the American population dropped by 6.1 percent, and rose 11.1 percent for the
top fifth, according to "Sleepwalking Through History," the best-selling
assessment of the Reagan years by Haynes Johnson. The number of people living
beneath the federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million in 1978 to 32.5
million in 1988.
And the number of homeless people went from something so little it wasn't
even written about widely in the late 1970s to more than 2 million when Reagan
"His HUD cuts were the main factor in creating homelessness, and we said
that throughout the 1980s, but Reagan and his people never listened," said
Stoops. "Reagan, very similar to Herbert Hoover, did not believe the federal
government had a role in addressing poverty, so he resisted any legislation or
programs that did that.
"Besides, how could he help the poor when he didn't even know who they
Stoops and his close friend, the late Mitch Snyder -- the foremost
leader in activism for homeless people in the 1980s -- slept on heating
grates outside the White House in protest throughout 1986 and 1987 to push
Reagan to fund programs for homeless people. When Reagan finally signed the
Stewart McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, Stoops was sure he did so
only because Congress had enough votes to override a veto, though the ex-
president's supporters pointed to it as a positive sign that Reagan cared.
The gesture was more than counterweighed by Reagan's cuts in unemployment,
disability, food stamp and family welfare programs, Stoops said -- not to
mention the president's vilification of "welfare queens" as cheats in an
effort to justify cuts.
"He was a catastrophe," said Terry Messman, who co-founded the now-
defunct Oakland Union of the Homeless in 1986. "He was single-handedly
responsible for homelessness as we know it today -- and he did it to feed
the wealthy and the Pentagon."
Among Messman's first acts with his union was taking over empty houses to
claim them for homeless people; oddly enough, one of the first he barricaded
himself in turned out to be owned by Robin Orr, the former press secretary for
first lady Nancy Reagan. He laughs about it today, but the laugh only goes so
"Once you cut housing programs that far, it's just about impossible to
bring them back," said Messman, who now is homeless action coordinator for the
American Friends Service Committee and editor of the Street Spirit
homelessness newspaper in Oakland. "Reagan made homelessness permanent," he
Some experts contend, however, that Reagan was not entirely responsible
for the crisis -- that homelessness emerged as an unfortunate consequence of
the nation's shift toward personal responsibility after finding President
Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" policies wanting. It's not like Reagan wanted
homelessness, they say.
"In the 1970s and early '80s, we said if we kept converting low-income
housing into condos and co-ops, we would have a shortage of affordable housing
and homeless people would be in the streets, and we got scoffed at -- but it
was by both Democrats and Republicans," said Nan Roman, a longtime advocate
for poverty relief who is president of the National Alliance to End
Homelessness. "The politics of individual administrations certainly
contributed, but there's plenty of blame to go around through Congress and
every president that followed Reagan."
Barry Bosworth, a former economist for President Jimmy Carter who is now
at the Brookings Institution, even maintains that the man who ousted his
former boss from the White House was well-intentioned in encouraging people to
pull themselves up by their bootstraps instead of depending on their
"And in the end, if you were a taxpayer it was a pretty good deal," he
said. "But if you were unemployed and homeless, it was not a good deal."
Marty Fleetwood, who co-founded the HomeBase homelessness resource and
study center in San Francisco in 1986 and still runs it, said Reagan was "the
turning point for the crisis. . . . but there's no sense in having negative
sentiment toward him now."
"He was just the guy on watch at the time, he had that ideology, and he's
left us with a legacy that we're still struggling with," she said. "So really,
we need to look ahead instead of back." Then she chuckled.
"I'd like to imagine wherever he went, though, he's like some Dickens
character bent over with a cane, saying, 'Oh my gosh, what did I do?' "
Fleetwood said. "Would that just be divine justice? He wakes up in heaven and
says, 'Oh no, I didn't mean that to happen. Can't we do something?' "
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle