IT'S COLD, getting colder. Dark down here in the alley. A passer-by in a suit rattles the change in his pocket, says he hasn't any money to spare. You grit your teeth. Turn your back to get out of the attacking wind. Another night on the street.
Every year about this time, advocates for the homeless wring their hands in frustration at the lack of adequate shelter beds.
Contributions from charitable organizations and city and state governments pay for more beds. However, each year the demand for beds exceeds the supply, and more people face life without a roof over their heads.
To end this cycle, the focus of social policy must shift in a fundamental way, from actually maintaining homelessness - indeed, fostering it by casting adrift the most troubled members of our society - to doing everything possible to end it.
First, we need to understand the problem:
How do people become homeless? Numerous pathways into homelessness have been delineated by research: severe mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, lack of low-cost affordable housing, illiteracy, limited job skills and unemployment.
Many private organizations and government agencies seek to block these pathways through comprehensive services, such as mental health counseling, housing subsidies, shelters, soup kitchens and substance abuse programs. But these efforts are often grossly under-funded, and they are only able to make small gains in the battle against the cold, uncovered night.
Sometimes the homeless freeze to death, but most muddle through, receiving the muted level of public attention that marks a systemic social problem.
The causes of homelessness lie both in social conditions and within homeless people themselves. To reduce the numbers of homeless, social policies must address both macro and micro causes.
The catch-as-catch-can economy of Baltimore City has been a ** major contributor toward homelessness. A review of area homeless services reveals that policy has concentrated on housing, food and medical care. That's sensible because these programs are essential in ensuring that basic subsistence needs are achieved.
Macro conditions, however, such as the economic development of an urban community, are difficult to change.
Only limited success has been had in transforming the Baltimore economy so that more decent low-skill jobs are created.
Currently, the city's employment market reflects two extremes: high-end service sector jobs (white-collar or professional) on one end; on the other, jobs that require few skills, offer little pay and no benefits, and are largely dead-end. These latter jobs, despite their meager pay and bleak future, are sought after by the thousands of unemployed poor residing in metropolitan Baltimore, as well as by the homeless.
The city needs a sufficient base of manufacturing jobs that could provide higher wages and training for skilled labor.
That puts us right in line with every other major post-industrial center along the Eastern seaboard - and the line isn't getting any shorter.
Self-sufficient by order
Newly enacted welfare reforms at the state and federal levels further complicate the problem. The legislation requires that individuals receiving assistance must become self-sufficient within a specified time period, usually two years.
Unfortunately, self-sufficiency for the homeless is difficult to obtain. First, research indicates that only about a quarter of this population receives some form of General Assistance or Supplemental Security Income, even though the vast majority is eligible.
Second, it's an oversimplification to declare that the homeless can be "mandated" to work. Many of them struggle with multiple conditions impairing their ability to hold a job. Moreover, the leading characteristic of the homeless population is its heterogeneity - it reflects a startlingly wide range in age, gender, socioeconomic status and race.
Still, despite the growing numbers of adolescents, young adults and families with young children joining the ranks of the homeless, the typical unsheltered person is a male, exhibiting a history of substance abuse, unemployment or spotty employment, few job skills, some encounters with the law, and little orientation to the world of work.
While our aim here is not to blame the homeless, they must assume some responsibility for their predicament. As Lawrence Mead, a noted poverty scholar, has argued, many poor people make bad choices. This statement may be unpalatable for many liberals and advocates for the homeless, but our work with the homeless indicates that many of them have gone the wrong way - a way that, over time, has contributed to their terrible situation.
Regardless, we have to remember that overarching societal conditions limit the opportunities of hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and that in itself leads many to make the mistakes that can lead to an existence in relatively oppressive conditions.
With all of this in mind, a suggestion: New social programs should be developed around two main goals - help the homeless identify employment opportunities within their community, and assist them in developing the skills to capitalize on these events.
One major effort - ending substance abuse - should help them learn to make choices that will end their homelessness. The decision to seek treatment to stop abusing alcohol and/or illegal drugs is a critical first step in rejoining the work force.
These early steps, be they in the form of substance abuse treatment, mental health care, interpersonal and social skills training, vocational counseling, education, development of interviewing and job-seeking skills, job-coaching, sheltered work environments or job placement, are essential for the homeless to become autonomous and self-determining individuals.
Only then can they make informed decisions that will enable them to take advantage of employment opportunities, becoming independent and competitive in the work force.
Given Baltimore City's economic landscape, finding a way for homeless people to compete for unskilled and entry-level jobs should be a very high priority for homeless services.
Across the country there are examples of successful employment-based programs that train, find jobs, and coach newly hired participants to resolve ordinary problems on the job.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has cited economic development as critical to Maryland's near future. We applaud his effort. But we suggest that economic development efforts be targeted at those who are most in need.
What state might do
The Department of Social Services might work with the Office of Economic Development to ensure that jobs are brought into high-unemployment areas like Baltimore. DSS, along with other private and governmental organizations, can develop strategies to train, place and follow up newly trained workers - including the lTC homeless. Economic development, coupled with job training and placement, are keys to unlock the homeless problem.
But finding a job for the neighborhood panhandler is not a guarantee that he'll be off the streets for good. The homeless are stigmatized and devalued by our society. Businesses will not readily hire them. Their lack of skills, untidy work histories and personal problems make them a risky proposition for stable employment.
Therefore, employers need incentives - continuing support for job coaching, tax breaks, etc. - to participate readily in programs to hire the homeless.
While the initial investment will be great, future budget burdens will be reduced as the number of homeless people is reduced - fewer shelters, less time in the courts, fewer trips to the emergency room for hypothermia, assaults or other ailments that commonly afflict our street population.
The overall message is easy to understand: Not all homeless people can earn their own living, but those who can should be given a real opportunity to do so. The alternative is to continue down the same path.
John R. Belcher is an associate professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Social Work. Bruce DeForge is assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in the Department of Family Medicine.
Pub Date: 12/01/96