THE American economy has outpaced the world in growth, productivity and general prosperity for the past decade. Inflation is at record lows, and unemployment is practically nonexistent.
But amid all this prosperity one segment of our society has continued to be left behind: the homeless. A December 1999 survey of 26 cities, including St. Louis, by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reveals that fact all too clearly.
One alarming sign of this continuing problem is the fact that emergency shelters are turning away homeless families due to lack of resources. These families comprise nearly 40 percent of the homeless population. During the past year, requests for shelter by homeless families increased by 17 percent. An average of 25 percent of the requests for emergency shelter have gone unmet, and half of the cities reported that the length of time people are homeless increased during the last year.
Why are people homeless? The lack of affordable housing continues to lead the list, but other causes are substance abuse, low-paying jobs, domestic violence, mental illness, poverty, changes and cuts in public assistance, the lack of access to affordable health care and the lack of needed services.
At its root, however, homelessness is a housing problem. The U.S. Conference of Mayors report highlights both the absolute scarcity and the unaffordability of safe and sanitary housing for low-income individuals and families. Requests for assisted housing by low-income families and individuals increased in 70 percent of the cities during the last year. City officials estimate that low-income households spend close to half of their income just on housing.
As the problem seems to grow, so do the lines for public housing and assistance. Applicants must wait an average of 19 months for public housing. The wait for Section 8 Certificates, a federal housing subsidy, is 33 months, and for Section 8 Vouchers the wait is 32 months.
Sadly, more than 60 percent of the cities have simply stopped accepting applications for at least one assisted housing program due to the high demand and the excessive length of the waiting list.
The new report confirms what we already know: Homelessness and poverty are linked. St. Louis, a city with 818 shelter beds on any given night, does not fair well in comparison to cities of the same approximate size. In St. Louis, poverty affects one in four people. In contrast, poverty effects about one in 10 in Charlotte, N.C., and one in six in Kansas City.
WE can hope the 2000 census provides a brighter picture. But according to the Conference of Mayors report, the need for assistance is going to continue. In some cases, as many as 90 percent of the cities expect that requests for emergency shelter and food assistance will increase during 2000.
As for the booming times, city officials reported mixed views with respect to the effect of the current strong economy on problems of both hunger and homelessness. Some say there is little or no impact. Some say in the long run the strong economy will lead to improved conditions. Still others say that the strong economy has made things worse, especially with respect to increased housing costs that lead to less and less affordable housing.
What can be done? In the short run, shelter beds, food pantries and existing housing supply for low-income families have to be kept on track.
Funding for the essentials is our only safety net. In the long run, we need a comprehensive initiative to end homelessness through a massive federal, state and local partnership to re-establish the severely depleted supply of affordable housing.
At the state level, we must increase the funding for the Missouri Housing Trust Fund. We must create living-wage jobs and the necessary career ladders and job training to bring the homeless into the benefits of the new economy.
We must provide special services for mental health, drug abuse and domestic violence commensurate to the demonstrated need.
Our progressive voluntary sector must partner with the political leadership of our mayor, governor and senior senator to develop local, state and national initiatives to eradicate a 20-year American scandal: homelessness amid plenty in the richest country in the world.
Obviously, the battle continues.
John J. Stretch is a professor of social work at the St. Louis University School of Social Service and is the statewide chairman of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare's Adequate Housing and Homeless Task Force Committee.
© 2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch