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Herbert A. Opalek: Homeless -- what to do?

Herb Opalek

As we Mercedians are learning, homelessness is a homeless-mess.

Although the United States is one of the most prosperous nations in the world, the unfortunate reality is that a majority of Americans -- 58½ percent -- will spend at least one year of their lives living below the poverty line.

For many, all it takes is the combination of unfortunate circumstances -- such as a personal crisis or a poor life decision -- combined with a lack of a personal support system to provide the final push into homelessness.

Despite research proving otherwise, 85 percent of Americans wrongly perceive homelessness to be the result of individual failings, such as addiction, laziness or criminal behavior.

This overly simplistic interpretation of homelessness hinders progress toward addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness.

We in Merced are not that much different than other U.S. cities. The demand for shelter is increasing, and cities are having difficulty meeting the need.

More than half of our country's cities reported having to turn away people requesting shelter some or all of the time. This is due to the fact that cities have not adequately assessed homelessness and come to a solution -- either short or long term.

In an effort to control the people forced to live in public places, an increasing number of cities have started looking to the criminal justice system.

Criminalization of the homeless takes many forms, including restrictions on panhandling, sweeps of city areas inhabited by homeless people and legislation making it illegal to sleep or sit in public areas, often resulting in criminal penalties.

For example, in Cincinnati panhandling without a permit is considered improper solicitation. In Atlanta, the mayor issued an executive order prohibiting feeding homeless people in parks or in public.

I would argue that these laws are short-term stopgaps and do little more than hide the problem of homelessness from public view.

Rather than enforcing inhumane legislation, it should be self-evident that cities should focus on constructive alternatives to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

In July, Time Magazine asked "at a time when Americans are dealing with rising food and fuel prices, slowing jobs and soaring home foreclosures, is it really possible that homelessness is on the decline?"

Perhaps, but it depends on your meaning of the word homeless.

According to a report given to Congress on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, overall homeless numbers, taken from a one-day national count in January, were down 12 percent from 2005 to 2007, to just under 672,000 people, most of whom were on the streets only temporarily.

Chronic homelessness is down even more, almost 30 percent lower than in 2005, from 175,000 to fewer than 125,000.

There is a rather large asterisk on the new data, however, the result of an ongoing effort to more narrowly define who is actually considered homeless.

This is the third annual national HUD count, and in previous years, some cities had been counting families who were living two families to an apartment, for example, or those living in RVs, as homeless.

This year, they weren't.

This count, say the report's authors, is the most successful to date in tallying only those who were actually in shelters or on the streets -- the official HUD definition of a homeless person.

I am one, among many, who believes the government's definition of homeless should be expanded to include families and children who are "doubled up" with families or friends in often overcrowded, unsafe living conditions or living in motels.

There is no question that the issue of homelessness is a primary concern for Mercedians.

The ways people express their concern and ideas to address the problem are varied. Some talk about feeling unsafe interacting with people experiencing homelessness who panhandle or who are in public spaces.

Most people who speak of the issue, however, express compassion and understanding and would like to see the problem of homelessness confronted from this perspective.

People should value the existing agencies that really provide comprehensive homelessness services.

The city and county should work arm in arm with these agencies for better-funded services that are both innovative and transitional. Only then will we Mercedians begin to successfully deal with this problem.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday, sometimes more often.