Sunday, September 11, 2005

Journalist Examines Homeless Crisis in America

Homelessness in America existed long before the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. It is difficult to determine the total number of displaced people in the United States. However, the Urban Institute estimates that in any given year, some 3.5 million Americans are homeless, 1.4 million of them children.

Relief is pouring in to help those ousted from their homes by Katrina. Without question, all assistance is desperately needed. However, some news analysts and social scientists pose a question: Once the crisis has passed, will America's urban centers - now opening their doors to the hurricane victims - continue this same level of support to the homeless in their own communities? St. Louis columnist Bernie Hayes explores this compelling issue from a local angle.

Will Katrina Bring Focus to Local Homeless?
By Bernie Hayes

Although this past Labor Day weekend was supposed to be a celebration of the working class, and the unofficial end of the summer season, everyone's thoughts were on efforts to provide relief for the hundreds of thousands of individuals whose lives were all but ended by the tragedy along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Most of the images depicted in the media were of poor people, the majority black. A disaster of any proportion can shatter the sense of safety and stability of anyone who feels close to the disaster or its victims in any way, and local poor people of color feel they are especially linked to the communities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The U.S. and foreign governments, churches, businesses, relief agencies and individuals from all over the world are aiding in Katrina relief efforts through various initiatives, but what about those families and individuals who were homeless in those areas and in other communities before the Gulf disaster? Will these churches, businesses, individuals and agencies also focus on those who remain homeless after the relief efforts have ended, particularly in the inner-city?

There is a "homeless crisis" in the U.S. and it took a scene of carnage in these Southern communities to get their concerns addressed, and no one is impressed with the way the US government has dealt with the recent Gulf Coast tragedy. Did it take Katrina’s wrath to focus on the homeless and powerless in Missouri and Illinois? Should homeless people in St. Louis move to the Gulf Coast to get help? Why can’t the same efforts be made to help the homeless and mentally ill persons in the inner-cities around the nation? After the efforts to relieve the survivors of Katrina, will there be help for the destitute in Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other areas including New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and Mobile?

It is admirable for local officials to offer St. Louis County's old Gumbo jail in Chesterfield, a vacant Boeing airplane hangar and a mental hospital in Alton, Illinois to accommodate Hurricane Katrina survivors. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, Governor Matt Blunt and St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, now have an opportunity to improve the existing shelter system, to develop creative solutions to the issues and situations that cause homelessness, and help move down-and-out people into independent living by trying a variety of new approaches to address the dispossessed problem.

Locally the number of homeless families in the shelter system has risen significantly and by placing homeless people in these abandoned facilities could be the most inexpensive way of meeting their basic needs. These facilities can be the spark local advocates and agencies need to begin the production of new housing, and the preservation or rehabilitation of existing housing that is affordable for homeless and low-income people.

It is essential and only human that homeless people get real housing with social services and not just emergency shelter. The local, state and federal government, in partnership with individuals and communities, must assume responsibility and leadership to build a society that ensures every person or family who is homeless be provided health care, education, and safe and affordable housing. We need more humanitarian efforts for the permanently displaced, including employment and training services that are crucial components in the comprehensive efforts to address the cycle of homelessness.

Rev. Larry Rice of the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis said ‘St. Louis has a housing crisis and Hurricane Katrina has merely brought it to the forefront, but when the crisis is over, it will be back to business as usual’. Rice said ‘City officials should offer St. Louis area homeless persons a helping hand by using football and baseball stadiums for interim housing’.

Rev. James T. Morris, pastor of Lane Tabernacle heads the ad-hoc group Operation Response and Provide St. Louis. He said ‘we are living in two America’s. One for the affluent and the other is for the have-nots’. He said ‘St. Louis and America is on the world stage and must respond in a positive way to this crisis, but the efforts are seething in racism and this also must be addressed’.

We must find ways of preventing nomadic episodes, and for those who are without a roof over their head, we must ensure a speedy transition in to stable permanent housing. What do you think?

Bernie Hayes, a veteran newspaper and broadcast journalist, teaches media courses at Webster University in St. Louis.

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