The ranks of the homeless spell out a national scandal. In the past decade the number of men, women and children living on the street has escalated sharply. Pushing shopping carts with all their worldly possessions, sleeping on the grass in front of city halls, shivering in doorways on cold winter nights, the homeless are a constant reminder of how cruel life can be.
On Nov. 8 Californians will have a chance to vote for humane, positive action to assist the 200,000 to 250,000 Californians who are homeless. Proposition 84 is a bond issue of $300 million that will help nonprofit agencies and local governments to provide emergency shelters for the homeless, support the construction of low-income rental housing, and rehabilitate existing low-income housing stock.
Who are the homeless? Between 20% and 30% are mentally ill. A growing proportion, possibly one-third, are families with children. Some are elderly, others are veterans. Some are drug addicts and alcoholics. For people at the lower end of the income scale there is little margin for error; a sudden loss of a job or serious illness can begin a devastating spiral that may mean life on the street. The homeless are a diverse group with one thing in common--they can’t find housing they can afford.
The problem of homelessness cannot be separated from the shortage of low-cost housing. The problem has reached crisis proportions for two reasons. First, the federal housing budget has been decimated, cut by 78% since President Reagan took office in 1981. Second, the price of housing has skyrocketed in California. In the city of Los Angeles the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in 1980 was $262; by 1987 the average rent was $530--an increase of 107%. As rents have escalated, middle-class people have begun renting in areas that were previously lower income. As a result the number of rental units available for low-income families has shrunk; in 1980 there were two poor California families for every affordable apartment; in 1988 four poor families compete for each unit of affordable housing.
Housing families with very low incomes in public shelters is only a stopgap measure. Proposition 84, whose chief architect is state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), is designed to provide both immediate relief and a long-term solution. The money provided by the Housing and Homeless Bond will build 8,000 rental units, rehabilitate 22,000 residential hotel rooms, provide 33,000 emergency-shelter beds, buy 300 housing units for seasonal farm workers and result in low-interest loans for 4,000 first-time home buyers.
A yes vote is called for on Proposition 84. This bond act has the potential to lift thousands out of misery at a minimal cost to taxpayers. The annual debt service is minuscule--approximately $1 per Californian per year for 20 years. Our Social Darwinist policy of neglect must end. It is time to bring the homeless inside.