YOU can tell when it's autumn because the wind starts to get a little bit colder, and there's a lot of talk about elections, especially in the year of a presidential campaign. What autumn also means is that the growing numbers of homeless people in this country are soon going to have to figure out where the warmest doorways or heating vents are so that they'll have somewhere to sleep if the shelters are too full.
As anyone who lives in Cambridge and walks around Harvard Square knows, the plight of homeless people is a continuing problem. It has grown to such an extent that it merited a full set of questions to the presidential candidates in their televised debate Sunday night. Regardless of whose sound bites were better or whose memorized one-liner was catchier, Dukakis clearly showed that he was taking the homeless issue seriously. Such concern would be a welcome change after what Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) once called "a seven-year assault on federal housing policies by the Reagan Administration"--policies which are in large measure responsible for the huge numbers of displaced persons walking our streets.
Vice President George Bush's response to the question posed Sunday night showed just how insensitive he would be to the problems of homeless people. The only bit of substance in his answer to the problem was his support for fully funding the McKinney Act, a proposal that would create more shelters for the homeless, even making some out of unnecessary Army bases.
What Bush totally avoided was the fact that his Administration helped cause the problem of homelessness by cutting funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development earmarked for providing low-income housing. Bush pointed out proudly that his Administration was responsible for low interest rates, but those low interest rates were used to regentrify our cities' neighborhoods.
Regentrification is the process by which developers came into areas that had normally been inhabited by low-income renters and began erecting high priced condos. People living on welfare cannot afford condominiums. The more high-rent places you build without building new low-rent homes, the more people you force to live on the street. The U.S. Conference of Mayors found that by 1985, the homeless population was growing by 25 percent a year, and homeless families were the fastest growing group in that population.
AND what did the Reagan Administration do about this problem? In their budget for fiscal year 1988, the Reagan Administration took 5 percent out of HUD's budget, commited no funds for any new construction of public housing and only reluctantly spared a program which would enable local goverments to help landlords rehabilitate low-income rental units. At the same time, the Administration, for the seventh year in a row, tried to fully drop the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program, which aims at encouraging private development of low-income housing in distressed areas. Each year the Congress, Democratic House and Republican Senate alike, stopped the Administration.
The same attitude characterized the Administration's latest budget proposal. There were a couple differences, though, since it is an election year. Even though he continued to oppose the UDAG program, Reagan, with Bush by his side, allowed for the building of new government-subsidized rental units. The Administration had always forcefully opposed such building before.
Dukakis pointed out that Bush was in part responsible for the homeless problem by reducing the federal government's commitment to affordable housing and stated clearly that until you build housing that people can afford, they are going to have to live on the street. The commitment has to be reaffirmed, and Dukakis has stated that he will do exactly that.
For Bush to think that shelters would in any way alleviate the situation borders on callousness. No Family or individual trying to live in a temporary shelter each night, without any guarantee that there will always be room for them, will be able to feel any of the self-esteem or just plain security that allow people to live normal lives. When you have to worry each and every day about where your children will sleep that night, or where food will come from, you can't focus attention on getting a steady job or getting your children to school, and you can't break out of the poverty cycle that helped make you homeless in the first place. A shelter is not a home, even though George Bush can't seem to tell the difference.
Bush may indeed be "haunted" by the plight of the homeless, and there may be "a thousand points of light" to help care for those without homes. But what there is most assuredly not is a commitment from his Administration to guaranteeing that the objects of charity might one day be able to support themselves.