In eighteenth-century London, aristocratic elites visited the mad in Bedlam Hospital and called it entertainment. In twentieth-century New York, professional elites visit the mad in the streets and call it homeless outreach. The results in both cases are the same: the objects of attention are left to rot in their own filth, perhaps to lose a limb or two to gangrene, or to die. The intention, however, could not be more different: in modern times, such hands-off treatment shows "sensitivity" and "respect."
Only by entering the realm of political myth can one understand how such deliberate neglect could constitute professional treatment. Contemporary homeless policy is one of the odder expressions of utopian political fantasy since Rousseau famously denounced society as oppressive and corrupting. For their advocates, the homeless are potent symbols of heroic alienation, concrete embodiments of the advocates' own adolescent longing for rebellion and nonconformity. The plight of the homeless, in the advocates' view, is a searing indictment of American culture. Should the left ever lose interest in dramatizing the Rousseauian mythan unlikely eventthe homeless will disappear, removed to safer abodes.
A recent homelessness conference in New York City perfectly demonstrated how fanatically the advocates hold on to their myths. Called to discuss the failure of a model outreach program, the conference unwittingly showed instead why the homeless are still on the streets.
The Times Square Business Improvement District (BID), a coalition of business owners dedicated to the revival of New York's famed crossroads, has long prided itself on its generous homeless programs, aimed at getting derelicts off the district's streets. From 1992 to 1994, the BID funded an outreach program designed to coax the local homeless into temporary and permanent housing. The payoff was meager: some 200 long-term homeless, according to program estimates, remained on the streets around Times Square, impervious to the efforts of the outreach workers.
So in 1994 the BID decided to up the ante. It procured over $2.5 million in state and federal money to create what it and its government funders touted as a highly innovative homeless program. Under the plan, a brigade of gentle, well-meaning professionals from six local social-service agencies would roam the streets 16 hours a day, spending an unlimited amount of time with their "clients" in their natural habitat. The outreach workers would try ever so delicately to persuade the homeless to visit the BID's renovated "respite center," located in the basement of a Times Square church, where they could get overnight shelter, showers, healthy meals, clothing, and medical attentionwith no strings attached. For example, if a client wanted to booze on the streets during the day, that was fine, at least for his initial visits. Or if he wanted just to hang out and watch television, that was fine, too. On-site social workers would ensure that he was in receipt of every welfare benefit to which he was entitled, with nothing demanded in return.
If a client ultimately entered and completed detox, the center would require him to refrain from using drugs or alcohol and to attend group therapy sessions run by on-site psychiatrists and social workers. Ultimately, the BID hoped, the center's longer-term clients would deign to accept government-subsidized housing, lined up by the center's staff.
What was supposedly innovative in this utterly conventional program? The same people in the outreach teams would also work in the respite center, allegedly providing continuity and building trust with the homeless. In the hermetic world of homeless practice, such minor tinkering passes for radical rethinking.
One year and $700,000 later, only two people had accepted housing. The rest had staunchly balked. This remarkable result was certainly not for lack of trying. Over the year, the outreach workers had made 1,511 "contacts" with 206 individuals (only a handful of whom, it turned out, actually called Times Square home; the advocates and outreach workers' original estimate of the local homeless population had proved, as usual, to be wildly excessive). Those 1,511 contacts were seemingly more meaningful to the outreach workers than to the homeless: only 37 of the 206 contacted individuals agreed even to visit the BID's respite center, while a mere 15 condescended to stay overnight. The homeless, it appeared, did not really want housing, housing, housing.
To its enormous credit, the BID decided to publish a report on the year's efforts. This document, "To Reach the Homeless," written by Columbia journalism professor Bruce Porter, is a jaw-dropping account of state-of-the-art homeless rehabilitation techniques. Unprecedented in its honesty, it provides a rare window into the mad futility of the homelessness outreach profession. In the battle of wits between the wily homeless and guileless outreach workers, it's no contest, for the outreach workers will not infringe on the "autonomy" of the homeless, while the homeless feel no corresponding scruple.
As recounted in "To Reach the Homeless," a typical day of outreach resembles a Dantean pilgrimage through the underworld. One day, for example, outreach workers stop by a coffin-sized box across from the New York Times building. "We know it's a person," reports Porter, "because we can discern a hand moving underneath some rags." The workers knock on the box and say hello but get no response. Because the hand is still moving, though, the team concludes that whatever it is attached to must be okay, so they move on.
They next come across "Shoeshine Bill," "an old man with a shoeshine kit and markedly swollen ankles who is sitting in a puddle of his urine." Shoeshine Bill assures the workers that he is doing "fine," so they move on. An old black woman is raving unintelligibly about drugs in Harlem. She's "not very open to help," says an outreach worker. A young white couple lying on the street banter off a suggestion that they visit the respite center; they'll go, jokes the gaunt male, "only if they could get a private room for an hour with a bed." The woman has deteriorated markedly from alcoholism over the previous months. The outreach worker drops a few condoms on their blanket and moves on.
Some of the homeless demonstrate admirable energy and persistence in avoiding the outreach workers' ministrations. "Heavy," a large black man who reigns, according to the report, as the "undisputed king" of Times Square, is one such vagrant. Heavy is highly visible: "[H]e is invariably dressed in a dark green jump suit, two or three canvas Post Office mail carts nearby heaped six feet high with his stufffilthy quilts, dirty towels and plastic bags packed with plastic bottles, broken broom handles presumably used for defense, a half-dozen milk crates filled with wastepaper and tied on with bits of nylon rope, gallon ketchup bottles, some of the sauce still sloshing around the bottom. Sprouting up out of the pile is an eight-foot-tall iron pipe that is tied with long orange streamers fluttering in the wind."
Fortunately for Heavy, the outreach workers are also highly visible. Whenever he spots their bright red jackets approaching, he wedges himself behind a fence or other barricade, "prepared to resist the service providers at all costs." One time, the team tried to capture him with a pincer movement, but he dashed into traffic and nearly got hit. "After that, we seriously had to ask ourselves what exactly we were accomplishing by this," recalls the director of the program. Sadly, the workers' doubts were fleeting.
Other street residents avoid the outreach workers out of embarrassment. As an outreach team chats with three vagrants sharing a jumbo bottle of beer in a hotel garage, a 63-year-old man named Charlie hides nearby in back of a refrigerator. The workers have taken him to detox four times, and now he's ashamed to face them. The team leader is philosophical: "[H]e's smelling pretty bad these days, so we'll probably be hearing from Charlie soon. He usually comes in to take a shower when he gets that way."
Such repeated efforts are the norm. A lost soul from Rochester named Toni relies on the seemingly inexhaustible trust of the workers to avoid going to alcohol detox. The workers have given her subway fare to the treatment center, as well as fare home, many times, but each time she either never gets on the subway or gets off a few stops down and returns to her haunts. Toni's reception upon her return is not always gracious. "Last night I got the shit beat out of me, right here," she tells the workers. "Dutch did it. He's crazy. He hit me for no reason, just popped me in the face, no reason." The workers try to draw a moral from the situation: "You realize if you got out of detox and went home, this might not have happened?" they ask her. Toni halfheartedly assents to this proposition, so the workers once again give her fare to a detox center on Staten Island and see her on to the train. As usual, their homily vanished into thin air: one stop down the line, she got off and went straight back to Times Square.
Nothing, however, compares to the difficulty of enticing the homeless into housing. Time after time, a client deemed "housing-ready" will balk at the threshold of his new abode and plunge back into the most squalid street life. Only a few vagrants even get that close; most keep themselves safely removed from the housing process. The respite center's staff, faced with their meager record of accomplishment, have defined success down, to adapt Senator Moynihan's resonant phrase. The fact that the homeless sometimes return to the outreach center to "reveal how screwed up they've become" shows that the "staff has affected them in some positive way," the report concludes wanly.
The charity our society showers upon people living on the street makes possible this hardy resistance to seeking help. In true New York fashion, even vagrants can get home-delivered food: a do-gooder group from Dobbs Ferry called Midnight Run makes regular deliveries of sandwiches and juice, along with toiletries and blankets, right to people's cardboard boxes. The homeless know the hours and locations of every local soup kitchen, and the more enterprising work out deals for other personal needs. One older alcoholic would throw away a new pair of underwear every couple of days, secure in the knowledge that Midnight Run would soon bring another pair. Other homeless use more unorthodox approaches to street survival. When it gets cold, recounts a scraggly vagrant, "I smash a window with a brick and go to jail. I get along fine in jail."
Yet though no one is going hungry on the streets, vagrants' bodies often are disintegrating from a host of untreated maladies. Alcoholics lose toes, feet, and legs to infections they haven't even noticed. Workers at the BID's respite center work heroically to secure treatment for their clients, but the clients often disappear right before a scheduled operation. No one, of course, has the right to make them stay.
The costs of this charade to the larger society are enormous, too. To take only one example, Amtrak loses $11 million a year at Penn Station, just south of Times Square, because the homeless drive potential passengers away, according to Richard Rubel, community relations officer at Amtrak. And the repeated trips the homeless make to hospital emergency rooms for thoroughly avoidable medical crises also ring up a hefty public tab, as do their resultant disability benefits.
"To Reach the Homeless" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the homeless are not on the street because they can't find housing: desperate to give away subsidized apartments, the BID found almost no takers. Clearly, most vagrants prefer the streets to the responsibilities of a housed existence. Some may simply refuse to play by society's rules, like many hoboes of old; for others, speculates the respite center's director, housing may represent a scary reencounter with whatever psychological demons drove them to the streets in the first place.
But although the homeless may prefer the streets, that is not why they are still there. They are there because the advocates need them to be there. Should society finally decide to end street vagrancy, it could go far in that direction by facilitating commitment to mental hospitals (see "Let's Stop Being Nutty About the Mentally Ill," Summer 1997) and enforcing existing laws against street living. Though the average householder would surely welcome such a change, the average householder has no say in these matters; a vocal minority purporting to represent the interests of the homeless governs homeless policy. And those advocates, who range from single-issue advocacy groups to the ACLU to left-wing churches, fiercely resist any measure that would restrict the "rights" of the homeless to live on the streets.
They do so not just out of material intereststhough many of them make a comfortable living off of homelessnessbut out of a spiritual need. Homelessness confirms for the advocates their dearest beliefs: that American capitalism is corrupt and cruel, that the American Dream is a delusion, that American society deals harshly with its rebels and nonconformists. Remove the homeless from the streets, and Exhibit A in the advocates' brief against America also disappears. Even the outreach workers on the front lines, who would say that their fondest wish is to house the homeless, nevertheless reflexively take for granted a definition of autonomy suffused with left-wing romanticism and at odds with the best interests of the homeless.
The advocates' ideology has rarely been as visible as at a conference on homelessness that the Times Square BID organized last April. Provoked by the sorry results of its outreach program, the BID brought together some of the country's leading self-styled homeless experts for a good-faith discussion of the question, "What Do We Do When Homeless People Say `No'?" What it got instead was an amazing and instructive display of deliberate duplicity and invincible self-righteousness. The advocates simply chose to ignore the BID's outreach program; wholly impervious to the facts, they brought with them instead their stock stories about housing shortages, a heartless society, and noble, helpless suffering. Their performance demonstrated why homeless policy has been so counterproductive.
Jack Coleman, former president of Haverford College and of the left-leaning Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, immediately set the tone of maudlin virtue. Coleman won acclaim in 1983 for living as a "street person" in New York City for ten days, an experience he wrote up as a cover story for New York magazine. The adventure was certainly a sociological "first": Coleman was undoubtedly the first "homeless" person to take a professional photographer on his rounds through soup kitchens and shelters to capture his every moment of despairColeman sitting next to a steam grate with forehead resting on fist, eyes closed, and face grimacing from fatigue and cold; Coleman gazing off pensively at a cheap diner; Coleman wolfing down his food in a shelter, surrounded by derelicts; Coleman staring hopelessly at the job listings in a minimum-wage employment agency (undoubtedly none called for his unique talents as a progressive foundation executive).
Now he once again put himself on display. He recounted his first moment back home after his "homeless" experience: he drew a hot tub, lay down in it, and started to cry. And lo! the tears began again, for everyone in the audience to behold. How many times Coleman had told this story to similar effect was anyone's guess, but it would prove a harbinger: if his tears spread Rousseauian "sentiment" throughout the conference, the subsequent speakers would suffuse it with Rousseauian self-righteousness. Before he left the podium, Coleman shared one further confession with us: he couldn't really lay claim to the full homeless experience, because he had always had change in his pocket with which to call his editor at New York! We the privileged can never really bridge the unfathomable gulf between ourselves and the homeless!
After Coleman's four-handkerchief histrionics, the next piece of drivel hit all the more painfully. It is our society's "intolerance of weakness and of the inability to compete in a free market" that causes homelessness, announced Mary Ann Gleason, an ex-nun who now heads the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. If we were a gentler, more communal society, the implication seemed to be, the homeless would embrace our free housing. Yet the problem, in Gleason's view, transcends economics. It is spiritual. The reason the homeless don't come in off the streets, Gleason averred, is that "they don't have meaning in their lives." Translation: we don't have meaning in our lives, and until we get some, the homeless will maintain their lonely outpost on the streets, "the only community they can find." (The fact that this "community" sometimes beats up its own members, as the detox-avoiding Toni discovered, did not seem to detract from its soul-enriching value, in Gleason's eyes.) Gleason especially admired the Europeans for having labeled the homeless the "socially excluded"though she never explained why, given this progressive diagnosis, the Europeans haven't solved the problem by "including" the homeless.
With the homeless thus transmuted into Romantic critics of soulless modern life, the remaining speakers had their theme. Dr. William Vicic, a "community medicine" specialist at St. Vincent's Hospital and author of a book entitled Memory of a Homeless Man, turned the title of the conference, "What Do We Do When Homeless People Say `No'?" upon itself. "Is `No' from the homeless an answer," he asked dramatically, "or an echo of us and the society we maintain?" In truth, he implied, it is we who say "No" to the homeless, not they to us. That we may have some rational grounds for saying "No" to substance abuse, criminal behavior, chronic irresponsibility, and inability to follow rules did not register with Vicic; through his Rousseauian spectacles, he seems to see only enslavement and oppression in society's rules.
Like Gleason, Vicic identified the roots of homelessness not in the dysfunctions of the homeless but in the closed-mindedness of the housed: "Separatism causes a lot of our problems," he said darkly. As a response to the events that precipitated the conference, Vicic's diagnosis seemed all the sillier. It's hard to imagine a less "separatist" program than the Times Square outreach and housing project: it sought to include the homeless on their own terms, without imposing conventional social rules on them. Yet even such unconditional inclusiveness could not overcome the determination of the homeless to stay homeless.
The most vacuous variation on the "Homeless Saying `No' " theme came from the Reverend James A. Forbes Jr., pastor at the nation's premier left-wing house of worship, Manhattan's Riverside Church. "We should value the one gift the homeless bring," Forbes admonished the audience"the ability to say `No.' " Forbes provided no clue as to how one "values" such a gift; he just reiterated his motif. The "ability to say `No' is a strength," he said, adding that the burden was on us to figure out what the homeless are saying "No" to. One couldn't help wondering, if saying "No" is a strength, why the homeless are so beset by illness and fear. One wondered, too, if Forbes also celebrates as a gift the big "No" that criminals say to the law.
With excruciating predictability, Forbes went on to accuse society of a lack of compassion. This note rang particularly false in the most generous welfare city in the country, especially in the wake of a $2.5 million effort to house a handful of homeless people. Though money is a dubious measure of compassion, to be sure, it is the measure Forbes clearly had in mind.
Another speaker, Tena Frank, director of homeless services at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, seemed to float far above the earth on a cloud of moral relativism. Our mainstream value systems regarding work and discipline, she explained, are just the way "we get our needs met"exactly as the homeless get their needs met by using drugs. Our failure to see the similarity "allows us to blame the homeless," she concluded.
The only advocate to avoid romanticizing the homeless chose instead a bald-faced lie. Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, is one of the shrillest advocates around. She lobbied tirelessly for the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, a federal cash spigot that falsely identifies homelessness as a housing problem, and she wages a regular campaign in court and in the press on behalf of homeless "rights." At the conference, Foscarinis demonstrated the rhetorical techniques that have made her so successful. Cities have no right to enforce laws outlawing camping or urinating in public, she asserted, because the homeless are "people who literally have no place left to go." This was, without doubt, the most outrageous claim of the day. The very impetus for the conference was the fact that the Times Square homeless did have someplace to go but spurned the offer. Foscarinis, however, simply ignored that fact. Equally beneath her notice were the millions of public dollars dedicated solely to the small colony befouling Times Square. "The resources are not there," she announced grimly, "to provide an alternative place to sleep or eat." Again, a lie.
Such duplicity should disqualify its practitioners forevermore from having the slightest voice in determining policy. It hardly needs saying that the homeless are not lonely beacons of courage, taking their stand against a hypocritical world, but demoralized or broken creatures, fearful of the demands of adult life. Enslaved by their inner demons or the substances they abuse, they are the least likely to benefit from the sphere of absolute license their advocates have carved out for them. Yet self-serving fictions like those rampant at the Times Square conference have guided homelessness policy from the start, because few are willing to challenge the moral bullying of the advocates. The consequences for the purported beneficiaries have been dire.
A sane homeless policy would acknowledge two basic realities. First, many people on the streets need treatment, not housing. For the sickest, legislators need to change rules against involuntary confinement, and states need to recommission mental hospitals emptied by deinstitutionalization. Second, for the rest of the homeless the best medicine is the expectation of responsible behaviorthe expectation of work and of civil and lawful conduct in public spaces. (See "Who Says the Homeless Should Work?" Summer 1997.) Accordingly, opinion leaders, from politicians to ministers, should decry all types of no-strings-attached handouts, such as no-demand soup kitchens and indiscriminate alms-giving to beggars, which simply subsidize self-destructive behavior. They should oppose allowing the homeless to turn public spaces into hobo encampments. Effective charity asks for reciprocity from the recipient, building patterns of work and discipline; to exempt the homeless from the rules that everyone else lives by infantilizes them permanently.
The advocates, clouded by ideology, may see the homeless as martyrs to American injustice or as free spirits marching to a different drummer, but by now most of the rest of us see them as disordered or confused souls who, for more than a decade, thanks to advocate-designed policies, have been marching to disaster.