Holiday Grandstanding And The Homeless
By Arianna Huffington
December 30, 1998
Last week in Baltimore, with much fanfare and surrounded by the cream of Maryland's political class, President Clinton announced $850 million in grants to help homeless Americans. It was presented as a Christmas gift, borne of the president's generosity and compassion for those left choking on the dust of the surging economy.
But this president's holiday generosity is more than a little like that of your rich old aunt who sends the same petrified fruit cake every year, with a gilded card with script lettering extolling, in iambic pentameter, the virtue of giving. Of the $850 million touted at the event, $700 million was actually appropriated in 1997, and the remaining $150 million has already been distributed as part of this year's budget allocation for emergency shelter funding.
"In this holiday season," the president pronounced, "we are giving Americans the most precious gift of all -- a brighter future filled with hope and prosperity, instead of despair and poverty." Memo to the president: There are a lot of innovative local solutions to the crisis of homelessness that actually work -- from the HERO program in Flint, Michigan, to the Star of Hope mission in Houston, Texas -- so why remain stuck in the old assumption that the federal government can "give" someone a bright future?
In any event, the president went on: "Our assistance will help homeless people across this nation to achieve the American Dream of decent housing, a job with a living wage and a chance for their children to build successful lives." How exactly, Mr. President? Will this American-Dream-for-all be achieved by continuing the same policies that in the previous year have, according to a Conference of Mayors survey, coincided with an 11 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter?
This holiday grandstanding is, of course, nothing new. Five years ago, again on Dec. 22, amid much hoopla during a White House ceremony, the president announced $411 million in grants to fight homelessness. Except that, according to the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, "the money was already there. So this was an opportunity for them to appear to be doing something more than they are." This year, however, no brave homeless advocate has stepped forward to proclaim the obvious. Far from it. "They get it. They really get it," gushed Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.
I called Ted Hayes, the homeless advocate and founder of Los Angeles' Dome Village, to ask what he thought. He thinks they don't get it. "This is more money down the same abyss," he said. "The system that exists does not break the cycle of homelessness. It doesn't work, and they know it doesn't work. The attempt to `mainstream' homeless people misses the point. Many of them are too weak to deal with the stresses of mainstream life. They need an alternative way to be productive members of society."
During the Reagan years, the plight of the homeless was never too far away from the headlines. During the Clinton years, the media are largely silent, presumably assuming that a strong economy and a warm and fuzzy president who feels our pain must surely have lifted even the most dilapidated boats. But according to officials of 30 major cities surveyed by the Conference of Mayors, "the strong economy has had very little positive impact on hunger and homelessness." Indeed, 93 percent of those responding expected requests for emergency shelter to increase further next year.
Also, 1999 marks the two-year point when some state welfare-reform deadlines kick in. Yet, according to a Village Voice report, there's been a nationwide drop-off in column inches, frequency and prominence in the press coverage of homelessness. "In the fall of 1988, the New York Times devoted 50 stories to the homeless, including five front page pieces. This year the Times has run only 10 pieces in the same period; none have begun on A-1." Homelessness is just not an A-1 story in our national conversation. With a compassionate New Democrat in the White House, it seemed safe to avert our eyes. Far from being lifted, the homeless fell right off our political radar screens.
According to the Conference of Mayors' report, 49 percent of homeless men are black. But where's the outrage? Where are the hunger strikes, the street theater, the nights spent on grates to to express solidarity? Can't you just hear Jesse Jackson, Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters berating the president's policies -- if the president were Ronald Reagan rather than Bill Clinton?But now they, and many others on the left, are far too busy defending the president against his inquisitors to take any time off to defend those left behind against the very same president's ostrich-like neglect.
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