Rethinking Homeless Myths

Westchester County, a high-rent New York City suburb awash in the homeless, saw its emergency-shelter population drop for the first time this year. James Williams, 43, a homeless food-service worker, is beginning to learn why. In a freshly painted red, white and blue trailer, Williams chats with a social worker during a three-day medical, psychological and occupational checkup that Westchester now requires of all people seeking shelter. The homeless caseload has decreased by 10 percent in the last year. Many people who spent their days on street corners are now in job-training programs and more permanent housing.

Throughout the country, officials are starting to subdue one of the great social scourges of the 19809. In the process, they have discovered how much misinformation, misunderstanding and misallocation of resources have handicapped the homeless in the last 10 years. A look at some myths of homelessness-and where they fall short:

Despite rhetoric warning that homelessness is out of control, many signs suggest that the nation is almost over the homeless hump. Officials in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., and Trenton, N.J., report that their shelter population have been stabilizing or declining in the past year. Many potential shelter residents stay away--and sometimes move back with friends and relatives-when told that they must undergo drug treatment and other forms of rehabilitation.

Academic experts say future increases are likely to be small. "I would be extraordinarily surprised if it is still growing with the same force it was growing in the 1980s," said Martha Burt, a senior research associate at the nonprofit Urban Institute whose work is cited by both conservatives and liberals. "You might be looking at 5 percent growth a year, but you're not looking at 20 percent."

The root causes of homelessness-poverty and lack of education and jobs are unlikely to abate soon. Low-cost housing is still needed for the millions of people forced to double up in cramped apartments and garages. But the rapid 1980s growth in homelessness is unlikely to be repeated. Scholars say that reports predicting a rise in the homeless population usually come from caregivers who are fearful of losing government funds.

The figure of 3 million homeless in the United States, used by advocates and the media in the 1980s, has little basis in fact. A 1988 Urban Institute report found there were no more than 600,000 homeless people on any night. Advocate for the homeless Mitch Snyder insisted researchers missed a huge hidden population, but he lacked proof and the argument ended with his 1990 death.

The boom in emergency-shelter construction, from 98,000 beds in 1983 to 275,000 in 1988, may have aggravated rather than eased the long-term problem. Yale law professor Robert C. Ellickson says new shelters do little to decrease dependency because they "draw not only people from the streets, but also those who are housed,"particularly "poor people who have been doubled up with friends or relatives."

Officials have had the best results turning shelters into transitional housing, where health and job problems can be addressed with funds from the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Many advocates of the homeless object to rules and assessment requirements that keep people on the streets, particularly the mentally ill who have no other place to turn.

"That's reaping economies at the price of cruelty," said Kim Hopper, president of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Some critics say the new programs are part of an old government tradition of making services hard to get when money is short. But Mary Glass, social-services commissioner for Westchester County, disagrees: "If you give people a chance to say, 'Gee, I don't have to get a job. I have a place to go and the government will take care of me,' I don't think that's healthy."

Some experts suggest even more innovation. Peter H. Rossi of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, proposes that nonprofit groups that have built housing for the elderly with federal help do the same for young adults. Ellickson suggests special housing vouchers for the mentally ill; Burt wants more attention paid to education and job creation. Anna Kondratas, the assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in charge of homelessness, favors several approaches, including using property unclaimed in the savings and loan collapse. She said 600,000 homeless people represent "a national shame." But "in a country as rich as the United States," she says, it is "a manageable problem."