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Policy to Fix Homeless

Making a dent in the nation's homeless problem might not be easy but it's possible to draw a picture to show a way forward.
At its core, there are five, broadly defined, component pieces to eliminating much of America's homeless problem. And, yes, the devil is in the detail but, so far, no one has been willing to take on the task of doing anything meaningful or even seriously suggest a way to fix the problem other than by applying ever-larger Band Aids. So here's a way forward.

1. Homeless Census

An accurate tally of the actual number of homeless people is needed so that the full scope of the problem can be identified and understood. Currently, official figures rely almost solely on counting the people who are housed in shelters.

But a large number of homeless individuals and families never step foot in a shelter. Instead, they live with friends and family members, in their car, a van or RV, an abandoned building and other places where they don't get counted.

The could be done by Census Bureau under the direction of the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and the Agriculture Dept., and working with state and county government.

The Census Bureau is expert at fielding a large field army of nose counters. HUD is well-equipped to survey cities and suburbs while the network of county agents employed by Agriculture is well-suited to go through small towns and farm areas.

The information reveal the true scope of the problem as well as provide real-time data to use in generating solutions. It should include information on how and why an individual or a family became homeless, if for no other reason than to dispel the media myth that all homeless people drank, gambled or drugged themselves onto the streets.

At the same time, it would be useful to know how many families are split up because of homelessness.

2. Inventory of Empty Homes

Every city and county keeps this data. What's lacking is a central data bank of this information so that HUD and its state equivalents, working with towns and cities, can begin to correlate vacant dwellings and programs with the homeless population. This can help target assistance to where it's needed the most.

3. Acquiring and Rehabbing Homes

City and county governments need to use their power of eminent domain to pry foreclosed and empty homes out of the vice grip of banks and mortgage holders so they can be repaired and turned over to homeless families and individuals.

"I'd be very comfortable arguing in court that the foreclosed house could be a magnate for crime and cause other problems," says a real estate lawyer who specializes in municipal law, "Plus, an abandoned house has a negative effect on the value of other, still occupied property on the street."

Declining property values in a neighborhood reduces the tax revenue a city collects which, in turn, affects its ability to provide services ranging from schools to street and sewer maintenance, and fire or police protection to hospitals that serve all neighborhoods – including those not affected by foreclosures.

Just as vital, as a city stabilizes neighborhoods it would create jobs.

Plus, it is likely that empty homes taken by eminent domain will need repairs before being made livable again. This means work for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, roofers, brick layers, painters, glaziers and landscapers, among others.

The house probably would need new appliances and windows, possibly a furnace and other things as mundane as door handles and light switches. These would be bought from local companies not directly involved in rehabbing – but all of which require employees to sell, deliver, install and service the products. The positive economic effects of refurbishing empty homes would ripple through a city.

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Best of all, at the end of the day an individual or family that has been homeless would have an affordable place to live in a neighborhood that is no longer on the decline.

Moreover, to ensure that the home is cared for by its new inhabitants, the city could require that the people moving in actually work on the rehab project the way Habitat For Humanity insists with its projects. People are much more likely to take pride in their new place if they put a big chunk of their own time, energy and sweat into creating the home.

4. Jobs Initiative

It is no use putting people into homes if they do not have a job so they can pay for the place. A major jobs initiative is needed – and not one that simply reduces the tax rate for wealthy, so-called "job creators" but a program that puts people to work.

"I've never created a job in my life," admits Benjamin Reynolds, pooh-poohing the Republican mantra that people like him with huge salaries are "job creators." Before becoming "disgusted with myself," he did finance deals in the northeast, earning seven- and eight-figure salaries for more than a decade. Reynolds said his state and federal tax rate was about 19-percent in 2010, the last year he worked in finance.

"All I was doing was helping somebody else destroy jobs," he says, "and when I finally figured it out, I walked away."

There is lots that needs to be done: Everything from revitalizing schools to repairing the nation's highways – large portions of the interstate system are in desperate shape, updating the country's increasingly unreliable power grid and building wind turbines, modernizing federal buildings, creating high speed rail in densely populated corridors such as between Washington and Boston or San Francisco and Los Angeles, creating new seaports, and bringing America's trophy national parks back to their former greatness. The list is endless and so, too, is the number of people available to work on these projects.

5. Leadership

As I wrote a few days ago, we need real to focus the nation's attention on our homelessness disgrace.

One speech won't do it; The White House needs to own the issue to keep it front and center, as do members of Congress who are concerned about poverty. While a dwindling number of newspapers and television newsrooms have real investigative journalists any more, local media is in the best position to point out how widespread the problem is in its community.


Finally, it is time for politicians to stop blaming us for our situation. We are not lazy or slothful. Nor are we simply looking for a handout – but we do need a helping hand to get us back on our feet and into a place of our own.

Charley James

Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.

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Posted: Monday, 3 September 2012

Charley's next book is about his experience being homeless. When published, he will donate a percentage of his royalties to homeless organizations.