Homeless’ Plight: National Disgrace

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744,313 estimated Americans were counted as homeless during one night in January 2005. That is the finding of a recently released report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The authors say the report is “not perfect� but that it was “the best data available at this time.� There is every indication that the report is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the true scope of America’s homeless problem. Many experts admit an accurate count of the homeless is very difficult. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that the annual homeless figure is between 2.3 to 3.5 million people.    

The National Alliance found that: 56 percent of people counted were living in shelters, while the other 44 percent lived on the streets; 59 percent were single adults, while, 41 percent were persons living as families; 98,452 families were among those counted; and, 23 percent of homeless were regarded as “chronically homeless� due to sustained periods of homelessness.

They also found that New York State with 61,094 people homeless ranked second behind California which had 170,270 homeless persons. In New Jersey the figure was 19,385. The coalition also found that 40 percent of homeless men are Miliatry Veterans and that on any given night 200,000 Veterans are homeless.

The report highlighted that minorities are vastly overrepresented—over 60 percent of those counted. Hispanics who represent 9 percent of the population accounted for 11 percent of those counted. Native Americans who represent 1 percent of the population accounted for 8 percent. African Americans who only represent 11 percent of the population accounted for 40 percent of those found homeless.

Even more troubling in a previous report done by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness they found that 23 percent of the homeless were children under18 with a parent and that 42 percent of those children were under the age of 5.    

To make matters worse, for some years there has been an absurd movement to criminalize homelessness. The National Coalition For The Homeless, ranks New York City #6 among the “Meanest Cities� in their “Illegal to be Homeless 2004 report.� The report cited New York City for its “aggressive policing practices� against homeless people.

The report also highlighted that “homeless New Yorkers are subject to being harassed by several law enforcement entities, including the New York City Police Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (covering subways, buses and transit facilities like Penn Station and Grand Central Station,) Amtrak Police, Long Island Railroad Police, private security firms patrolling business improvement districts and the Department of Homeless Service Police, which is a unit comprised of peace officers who can arrest and/or write criminal tickets within the shelter system, currently serving 38,000 New Yorkers.�     

In New York City, homeless people can be ticket for several things. Those sleeping on a subway train and taking up more that one seat can be ticketed for “stealing a fare.� For falling asleep on a park bench a homeless person can be ticketed for “misuse of park property.�  City authorities have mandated Tuesdays and Thursdays as “sweep nights� where many are rounded up.    

The legions of homeless represent those who have been victimized by the American nightmare: a society driven by market forces that has zero compassion for the downtrodden. For, this is a society which incessantly preaches about pulling upon oneself “by one’s own bootstraps.�  Therefore, homeless people are seen as expendable, weak links in the chain of capitalism. And from a pro-social Darwinist point of view the capitalist argues that their plight shouldn’t concern us.
Some time ago, our “president� claimed that he wanted to build an “ownership society.� Oh really? Well, how does he propose to do that, if affordable housing isn’t within reach of every single American? According to a Pew Hispanic Center 2004 report both African Americans and Hispanics have home-ownership rates below 50 percent, compared to 75 percent for whites. Where is the legislation affirming that every citizen has the god-given right to a piece of this “land of the free?� Sure, politicians will tout some program that will help a few obtain homes. Of course these band-aid measures will never correct problems routed in institutional indifference.

Repeatedly, this White House has pushed for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Some of this money could have been spent building affordable housing. But this White House as well as both the Republican and Democratic parties don’t give a damn about the masses of the poor.     

Most of us run into homeless people everyday. We see them “bumming� for change, sleeping on subway benches or trains, on street corners and under cardboard boxes. However, we pretend not to see them; afraid perhaps of what their reality exposes about this illusion of “freedom� we call America.

Benjamin is a member of The Black Star News’ Editorial Board

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