According to government reports, the nation’s economy is sound. As recently as October 7th, President Obama stated: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” adding that his team created “a more durable, growing economy” with “15 million new private-sector jobs since early 2010.” The president’s sentiments were confirmed by Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, who declared “The American economy in September again continued its strong recovery from the greatest economic crisis of our lifetimes. This month’s report shows more people getting back to work and finding jobs, as more people moved into the labor force.” And without a doubt employment is fundamental to the state of the economy. The nation’s current official unemployment rate is 4.9%, which can only be described as favorable.
Despite the favorable reports from the highest sources, something’s amiss. The number of persons on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) totals 43,369,684, with roughly one-fifth of the U.S. population, or 52.2 million persons, receiving some form of means-tested public assistance each month. Included in this, the federal government provides about $50 billion in housing assistance specifically designated for low-income households. Regardless of the administration’s assurances, this does not reflect a “sound economy,” nor should a society with only 4.9% of the workforce unemployed be required to pour out benefits to the disadvantaged in this fashion.
As implausible as is the contrast between government assurances and actual circumstances, a couple of other facts came to my attention this month. Several weeks ago I needed, for the first time in a couple of years, to deliver some documents to the Orange County Recorder in Santa Ana, California. By the time I arrived at the mall, adjoining the county buildings, I found myself engulfed in what appeared to be a hobo jungle. I’ve since learned that in the past few years the civic center area of Santa Ana has become the site of a massive homeless encampment. Apparently neither city nor county officials took any action to prevent squatters from simply moving in. A most recent tally reveals Orange County’s homeless population is now estimated to be 15,300, up from 12,700 two years ago. Quite recently, in an effort to take some sort of action, the County Board of Supervisors hired Susan Price, an experienced service coordinator from nearby Long Beach, as the county’s Homeless Czar. What she will do to resolve the problems remains to be seen.
The second event, calling attention to the homeless, as well as to the plight of those adversely affected by their presence, is a $1.2 billion bond issue, Proposition HHH, on the November ballot for Los Angeles. For the past five years residents watched with alarm as homeless encampments sprung up throughout the city. Funds from the bonds will initiate the construction of 10,000 apartment units to house chronically homeless people. Admittedly, this is merely a token offering. The local homeless authority estimates the city’s homeless population to be 28,000, with about 156,000 people homeless at some point each year. In addition, because of the restrictions and provisions written into the bond measure by the many interested parties, each homeless unit will most likely cost about $420,000; the supplemental funds required must come from other local, state and federal grants, yet to be arranged A further financial uncertainty arises in that no funds are provided for the operation of the homeless shelters or for mental health and substance abuse treatments. Nonetheless, if the bond issue is approved by the voters, money will commence being spent at once—in much the same way California’s bullet train continues to hemorrhage money, though not a foot of useable track yet exists.
As you might expect, despite the encouraging economic reports from our nation’s leaders, homelessness in the United States is widespread. The city of Philadelphia reports over 21,000 must live on the streets. New York admits to more than 61,000. Detroit, now partly abandoned, acknowledges 20,000 without a home, yet with only 1900 emergency beds available. Chicago, unbelievably, logs in with 140,000 unsheltered souls. And even our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., recently revealed they had only 5,000 available beds to house the 11,623 exposed citizens forced to unceremoniously camp out.
What’s wrong? How can it be less than 5% of employable people are without gainful employment, yet homelessness is rampant? Let me offer a little insight. Unemployment rates can be reported in six different official methods, U-1 through U-6, with a different definition for each. The U-3 category, selected as the Labor Department’s selected method, reports only “persons without jobs who have actively looked for work within the past four weeks.” Obviously a more realistic determination would be U-6, which includes those discouraged workers forced to settle for part-time employment. This pushes the rate to more than 10%. But let’s get real. In 1994 the Labor Department redefined unemployed by no longer counting those without a job for more than a year. If they’re now added back in, the actual unemployment rate exceeds 20%. And one final element to fit into the puzzle is the mid-level executive whose $60,000 per year salary terminated in 2009 and now works full time at Target for $14 per hour. Is it possible the realistic unemployment rate is now approaching 25%? Perhaps this is not quite as bad as during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it’s uncomfortably close.
Let’s now get to the nub of things. I confess I don’t know how to resolve the ills of the homeless, nor do I have any suggestions for handling them. However, I’ll share a story of how the fashionable city of Laguna Beach, California, dealt with their homeless problem in the early 1980s. The troubles started when the local Episcopal church set up sleeping facilities and a soup kitchen for all comers. As a coastal community with an inviting climate, this became an attractive draw for the homeless. The word quickly spread and they began to flood in from miles around.
It didn’t take long before the uninvited became a nuisance to the local residents. City employees tried to encourage the newcomers to exhibit some civilized propriety, but to no avail. Matters had become strained when someone set an explosive device at the outside wall of the chief of police’s office. Fortunately the chief wasn’t there when it blew the wall down. It did, however, provide the impetus needed to encourage city authorities to take appropriate action. Within 48 hours the church’s cordiality operation shut down for good. From then on police officers began treating the interlopers less than hospitably, with no quarter given. It took less than 30 days for the homeless to vacate the city. Wherever they went became someone else’s problem.
A final word: Society has evolved—or perhaps devolved—to the point where the homeless are now an acceptable segment of society, entitled to those benefits befitting a privileged class. Why this is so is a matter far beyond the scope of this article. I must only presume, unhappily, the productive citizens of this country will henceforth be required to support these people in the style to which they are becoming accustomed.