Two views of the nation’s capital were on display last week.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the main event was the ceremony for President Bush’s signing of still another massive tax cut designed primarily for the wealthy. On hand were the usual bevy of reporters and cameras to record the event. There were Republican leaders from the House and Senate full of self-praise for their legislative achievement that will balloon the deficit and drain funding from critical federal programs.
A dozen blocks away, some 500 health workers from all over the country were gathered in a hotel ballroom to discuss ways to meet the desperate need for housing and health care for the nation’s growing population of homeless Americans. None of the Republican leadership brass was in sight and no media showed to carry forth the message of the desperate plight of people without shelter or health care or hope.
High on the agenda of the advocates for the homeless-whose organization is formally known as Health Care for the Homeless (HCH)–is the closing of the enormous gap in the supply of affordable housing. The nation is five to six million units short of the demand for the barest affordable housing. This fact places heavy pressure on the effort to find decent shelter for low and moderate income families.
Fourteen million families spend more than half of their entire income on housing much of it crowded and substandard, leaving little for other necessities such as food, clothing and medical care. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has long urged that families try to keep their housing outlays to less than 30 percent of their income. Any payout for housing beyond that often leads to serious economic problems which push families into bankruptcy and homelessness-not to mention the fact that many forgo proper nutrition and medical care in an attempt to keep their homes.
Meanwhile at Bush’s White House tax cut ceremony, it was obvious that the political oligarchies were not thinking about affordable housing or, for that matter, any other pressing economic need of the nation. Needs? What needs? It’s party time for the wealthy as the Treasury is emptied for them.
This means that critically important social and economic programs will be put off for years while the nation struggles out of budget deficits created by the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and the rising costs of the invasion and prolonged occupation of Iraq. This will have a serious negative impact on the national economy in coming years. Future Administrations and future generations will have to struggle with the consequences long after George W. Bush has left office and is lounging under a mesquite tree in Crawford, Texas.
But, the impact on homeless people and families is immediate. Not only will affordable housing programs be pushed to the background, but the other big need of the homeless-adequate universal health care-will slide further down the national agenda if the budget deficits balloon.
Sadly, people without homes are not on the decline. Homelessness is increasing and along with it a growing number of serious health problems, some contagious. It is difficult to pin down the exact number of homeless at a given moment, but a 2001 study by “Helping America’s Homeless” estimated that 842,000 people were homeless in a given week and 3.5 million became homeless over the course of a year. A 1995 study reports that over a five-year period two to three percent of the U. S. population will experienceat least one night of homelessness.
Many of the homeless are the working poor who earn only the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour-totally inadequate in today’s housing market. The purchasing power of the minimum wage is less than a third of the minimum wage of 1968. How can minimum wage families exist-even put proper food on the table and cloth their children much less pay rent in today’s market? A worker would have to earn $14.66 an hour to provide enough income to afford a two-bedroom home at the national weighted Fair Market Rent (FMR). With the unemployment rate at six percent and rising, the problem of homelessness is only going to worsen.
A survey by the U. S. Conference of Mayors found that requests for emergency shelter increased an average of 19 percent in major cities last year. In many cities-often having subsidized gleaming stadiums with tax dollars– the requests had to be rejected because the cities lacked sufficient beds.
Lack of a stable place to live is traumatic for adults, but for children the experience is particularly cruel. More than 1.35 million children are homeless at some point each year. They exist in shelters, cars, parks or pushed into already badly overcrowded quarters. The homeless life disrupts their education, exposes them to communicable diseases, malnutrition, depression and drug addictions.
It is difficult to imagine a worse environment for a child or young adult. What kind of nation do we have when we allow children to be dropped through the safety nets and left on the streets or in crowded shelters? Of course many of the safety nets have been shredded through welfare reform efforts, benefit retractions, and the declining value of the frozen minimum wage. The growing income gap between the poorest and wealthiest citizens have left an increasing number of families at risk of homelessness, including those with young children.
We can solve the problem of poverty and homelessness. But it will take more than the “Alice in Wonderland” economics of the Bush Administration which believes there is only one solution to all problems-cut taxes for the wealthy who, unlike working families do not spend their Bush bonus.
We need to get off this plutocratic tax-cutting binge and start grappling with real solutions to real problems.