Commentary : Moral Mandate: Shelter for All

<i> Thomas T. Tierney is Orange County chairman of the United Nations Day celebrations to be held at Chapman College on Saturday, Oct. 24. </i>

Trappings of affluence carry with them a big price: They magnify the difference between the so-called haves and have-nots. In the hierarchy of needs, however, a comparison between someone with a luxurious home versus someone with a modest apartment is an empty exercise when each situation is further contrasted with a family who possesses no shelter at all.

I believe the provision of basic shelter for everyone is a moral mandate. It is also a major challenge, one which should cause us to compare our enlightened civilized behavior with that of so-called primitive tribes. Indeed, the problem is so significant globally that the United Nations has declared 1987 The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.

But before we leap to export our largess to solve a global problem, perhaps we should first look to our own communities. Yes, the homeless, the unsheltered, are about--and in disturbingly large numbers. Their emerging presence has been masked by our affluence and mobility, but now creeping urban density and the charitable inclinations of community leaders have brought the plight of the homeless to our eyes and ears. What we see is only the top of a very large iceberg.


The U.N. reports that a billion people--approximately one-quarter of the world’s population--are inadequately housed and that 100 million have no shelter at all. Malnutrition and disease linked to inadequate or nonexistent shelter-related support such as water supply and proper sanitation bring early death to more than 50,000 people each 24 hours. In the United States alone the U.N. reports over 350,000 Americans are homeless on any given day. Orange County, with all its material abundance, has more than 5,000 homeless--and 1,700 of these are children.

The homeless are a problem that cannot be exported. Some assistance is given from the labyrinth of welfare entitlements and private charities, but these measures are designed for subsistence, not restoration of self-esteem. Orange County’s more than 5,000 homeless may mirror a global trend where disenfranchised populations are increasing at twice the rate of cities themselves and four times faster than world population growth. It is an uncomfortable fact, and the shock of our initial awareness may induce the false comfort of psychic numbing. We cannot afford this interlude.

It’s time for local governments to provide leadership in caring for the disadvantaged in their communities. Facing the reality of community responsibility for their homeless is a state-mandated charge to each city. The California Welfare and Institutions Code clearly specifies that every city and county shall relieve and support all indigent persons who are lawful residents. Not all cities do this. In fact the quality of relief for our neighbors who are economically displaced from basic shelter is set at $5.35 per day--a subsistence sham that begs the issue of reintegration into the community and restoration of a sense of self-worth.

Orange County will never be a Calcutta for the homeless. Our egos will not permit it. Hubris, however, is an insidious disease. Unless we recognize our neighbor’s plight and establish a sense of community to care for the unsheltered, we may someday exit the pastoral security of planned residential developments only to confront our guilt in the faces of the homeless who, in increasing numbers, are forced to live in automobiles, sleep on beaches and engage in empty wandering through the new Main Streets of the county: our shopping malls.

Only when our city councils create a true sense of community through active caring for the disadvantaged will we truthfully demonstrate a sense of humanity. We must evolve from the jungle rather than revert back to it. No one said it would be easy.