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During the past decade, homelessness has emerged as a major social problem; yet our attempts to combat it seem only to have worsened things. Although the number of shelter beds in the United States almost tripled between 1983 and 1988 (going from 98,000 to 275,000), beggars now frequent downtown sidewalks and parks in ever-growing numbers. To understand why this has happened—in particular, why increases in government shelter programs have increased the count of homeless people as they are currently defined—one must realize that the view of homelessness proffered by activists like Robert Hayes, Jonathan Kozol, and Mitch Snyder is fundamentally flawed. Although these advocates deserve credit for bringing attention to the human tragedy of homelessness, their central policy proposal—more government-funded housing projects—is as wrongheaded as their assessment of the current situation. Instead of providing unconditional shelter to all who apply for it, policymakers should devise aid programs that better reflect the diversity of the homeless population and that do more to discourage dependency.
The current confusions in homelessness policy start with semantics. The term "homeless" is now used to describe people in two quite different situations on a given night. First, it applies to the street homeless—people who sleep in vehicles, parks, bus stations, and other places not designed as residences. Second, it includes the sheltered homeless—those who obtain temporary housing either in shelters that local governments or charities operate, or in rooms that can be rented with emergency housing vouchers supplied by welfare agencies. Unlike the street homeless, the sheltered homeless sleep in places designed for residential living; members of both groups, however, almost invariably lack permanent homes.
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