Sunday, January 22, 2006

On my daily schlep from Chinatown to Copley Square I walk past St. Francis House and Arlington Street Church, down Boylston Street, which averages five beggars per block, I’d say, stationed strategically outside overpriced cafes or serving as drugstore doormen. Every society has its beggars, of course. They often serve a religious function. In Judaism, where wealth is on loan from God and the poor have a legitimate claim to it, alms-giving is a means of atonement. Mendicants in China are seen as intermediaries between humans and deities, passing messages back and forth. In India it's dharma you're dealing with, and a class of beggars called sadhus beg only for food, never for money. In Bangladesh beggars are unionized. In San Francisco they take credit cards. Most Americans balk at giving to panhandlers. Though it’s usually just spare change, it’s not a question of spending the money so much as how the money’s spent.

Truth is, while beggars are the most visible and vocal of the poor, the majority aren’t homeless. And the lion’s share of homeless people aren’t beggars. The homeless remain for the most part out of sight and mind, unless you work in one of Boston’s overburdened shelters or in its severely stressed social services sector. According to a 2005 study by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) the number of homeless families and individuals more than doubled between 1990-2000, and continues to rise. Shelters for individuals are, as a matter of course, filled beyond capacity. As for families: 10,000 were homeless at some time last year. Massachusetts has space for 1,800.

The plight of the chronically homeless, for whom serious mental illness often plays a major role, remains the most intractable. But there’s a sensible solution. Dr. Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania found in his definitive study of nearly 10,000 chronically homeless people that the cost of leaving them to fend for themselves is equal to if not greater than that of housing them. The New York/New York Agreement of 1989, which reduced the single-adult homeless shelter population by nearly forty percent in the early ‘90s, has shown the way.

There’s some recognition at the federal and state levels of the need for long-term solutions to chronic homelessness. In 2003 the feds announced partnerships with local authorities. Acronymous committees were commissioned and staffed, executive orders issued, millions of dollars appropriated to various and sundry well-meaning organizations. Still, according to a 2005 report to Massachusetts legislators by the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association: “Even as study after study, including a recent report by a special commission appointed by the Governor, have continued to affirm that investing in homeless prevention services and housing subsidies is far less expensive both in dollars and human toll than providing emergency shelter, the State has largely failed to act on this knowledge.” The lesson of the NY/NY Agreement is this: it’s not a question of spending the money so much as how the money’s spent.

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