The Washington Post,
Thursday, January 4, 1990
'Simple' Solutions to Homelessness
I confessed recently that I haven't a clue as to how to solve the growing problem of homelessness in America.
I'm starting to think that' maybe I'm the only one who hasn't. Ever since that column appeared, I've been getting letters outlining one or another "simple" solution to homelessness. I'm not sure many of them make sense—at least in terms of more or less permanent solutions. But if you've ever participated in a brain-storming session, you know that sometimes the most off-the-wall idea can lead to Important insights.
So let's brainstorm.
Two readers call for large-scale building of rental housing. V.J. Carlo of Portsmouth, Va., notes that with peace threatening to break out around the world, there will be less justification for the huge military-industrial complex, which produces not just armaments but home-affording jobs. He calls for replacing the military-industrial complex with a "civilian-industrial complex' or the mass production of housing, a shift he believes would rescue the American economy while housing the homeless.
"You know, since 1900, housing has been the nation's economic safety relief valve," says Carlo, who argues that production of lousing by the private sector, with government guaranteed financing,, could be as effective an economic boost as the post-World War II building surge.
Sid Altman of Bethesda agrees the that "no permanent solution is possible until large-scale construction of rental housing is begun."
He would stimulate that construction by changing the tax code. "To a considerable' degree, the deductibility of mortgage interest and property taxes has distorted the housing construction industry, causing builders to concentrate of single-family hones at the expense of rental housing," he writes on "Fair Deal for Renters' letterhead. "Since it is politically impossible to end deductibility, the remedy is to extend it to renters:
He also-proposes a refundable tax credit (similar the earned income credit) for that portion of the rent that goes to mortgage interest and property taxes, as a way of extending the benefits fits to those who, like most of the homeless, have no tax liability.
Many of the ideas are, well, a little far out. One reader would require anyone receiving government housing benefits too sign a contract agreeing not to have any more children. The penalty for violating the agreement would be eviction and loss of benefits. A Greenville, S.C., man— S. H. Stranger—would use federal land in Alaska to build prisons to house inmates from all 50 states. The existing prison; would be used to house the home less.
Several readers would put the homeless to work: some by hiring them to build the housing in which they would live, simultaneously providing housing and job- training skills; others by combining homeless shelters with rehabilitation and training centers from which the jobless would-be transported to casual labor centers; still others by having individuals offer a day's work in exchange for minimum-wage payments.
Some would use governmental powers to encourage the production of housing while others see government as the source of the problem. Peter Farina of Washington believes two-tier property tax system (a high tax on land and a lower rate for buildings) would encourage the building and restoration of housing while driving down housing -costs. But L. Edwin Hoppes, a Springfield, Ohio, builder, would move government out of the way.
"All the do-gooders who are wringing their hands about the homeless can only think that hey need more money to throw at the problem.... At this very minute, there are tens of thousands of governmental authorities—federal, state and local—whose purpose is to think up new rules, regulations, restrictions and fees to impose upon land developers and home builders.
"What needs to be clone is not only to put a muzzle on the guilty bureaucrats but act to reduce or reverse some of the 'enhancement of life' that has already driven the price of housing out of the reach of poor people."
And so the brainstorming goes. Some of those who "known" the solution to homelessness see the problem as incidental to larger problems in the economy; some see the problem as resulting in the personal flaws of the homeless. Some would tackle the problem directly—for example, a D.C. program that houses the homeless in specialized trailers at a cost of just $8 a night (the he city pays up to $36.000 a year to crowd an entire family in a motel room).
And if you think that's cheap, listen to the suggestion of Ellen Thomas, a sometime homeless advocate for the homeless in Washington:
"We believe that a lot of homeless people are frustrated in their efforts to get off the street by the inability to take baths and stash their gear. Often it's only the indignity of smelling bad that keeps the shelterless jobless.
'We believe the very basic service of providing showers, laundry, lockers, mail and phone messages to street dwellers would help many of them get work and, ultimately, a home."