As appeared in U.S.News and World Report, January 11, 1999 (1056 words)

Fed-up cities turn to evicting the homeless

One urban problem with no good answer


CHICAGO--Until just months ago, there was a virtual second city beneath Wacker Drive in Chicago's bustling downtown business district. But unlike the majestic steel and glass skyscrapers soaring above, this was a makeshift village of cardboard boxes and beggars with no place else to go. For years they came here--since the Great Depression, some say--dragging everything they owned in recycled shopping bags to huddle around grates during the harsh Midwestern winters.

But last October, this decades-old hidden "city" became a near ghost town, which is exactly what officials in Chicago wanted. In a desperate attempt to sweep away the homeless, local leaders began erecting giant chain-link fences around the area. The lockout is one of a raft of hard-nosed strategies frustrated cities nationwide are now employing to try to make their homeless disappear. It's been more than a decade since reducing homelessness was viewed as an urgent national priority, when celebrities and citizens joined in high-profile efforts like Hands Across America, which raised awareness and $ 15 million for the cause. But the issue is back big-time--only instead of sympathy, the street dwellers are attracting hostility. Residents are sick of being hassled by ever more aggressive cadgers, and vendors say mendicants are hurting business. Exasperated local leaders are throwing up their hands, and instead of trying to deal with the causes--everything from mental illness to mothers in poverty to vagrant teenagers--they're simply trying to shoo away the people. According to a forthcoming report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, at least 24 cities have used police to forcibly remove the homeless from certain sections of town. Other places have tightened rules against panhandling and have prohibited sleeping in public places like parks and landfills. "When people are [sleeping or begging] outside your door, customers don't want to come in," says Bette Lockhart, head of a merchants group in Tucson, Ariz., that pushed for tougher laws.

The homeless problem is particularly vexing since it persists while so many other social ills seem to be on the mend: Crime is down, welfare rolls are at their slimmest in years, pregnancies, sex, and drug use among teens are dropping, and the rates of inflation and unemployment are the lowest they have been in 25 years. Yet the homeless situation remains as bad or worse. What's changed is the tolerance level: Even Berkeley and San Francisco, traditional bastions of liberalism and tolerance, have had it. "Homeless people are more visible and have themselves become a bit more aggressive than they previously were, and that combination has increased the displeasure of citizens," says San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. After newspapers there profiled some of the Bay area's newest homeless, readers had surprisingly Archie Bunker-like reactions. "I think you ought to pick another poster child for homelessness instead of what appears to me to be just another junior shiftless bum," one man grumbled in a letter to the Berkeley Express.

Berkeley's City Council recently passed an ordinance banning groups of more than two dogs at a time on city streets. The law is clearly aimed at this university town's new generation of homeless: teens and people in their 20s who often have canine companions. Across the Bay Bridge, San Francisco supervisors voted to bar alcohol in several parks frequented by the homeless and allowed stores on Union Square, the city's shopping mecca, to use private security guards to roust indigents.

More funding.,/b> There are no hard statistics on the homeless, given the difficulty in tallying them. But estimates range from a low of 230,000 to as many as 750,000 people nationwide. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency shelter hasn't declined once during the 14 years the group has been tracking it; in 1998, it rose 11 percent. Even increased federal funding hasn't made a dent. Since 1993, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has pumped nearly $ 5 billion into programs designed to combat homelessness, compared with just $ 1.5 billion between 1987 and 1993. (And just before Christmas, President Clinton promised to seek a 15 percent increase in homelessness spending next year.)

The rosy economy hasn't helped either. "Sometimes the strong economy makes the basic cost of living go up, which can have a negative impact on the poor segment," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. As downtowns become more prosperous, high-priced apartments replace tattered, low-rent refuges. John Quigley, an economics professor at the University of California--Berkeley, says the cost of low-income housing in some parts of the country has increased as much as 40 percent in this decade. And HUD estimates there are now 5.3 million low-income people paying more than half their incomes in rent.

Activists and experts on homelessness warn that the problem could get worse, that the current crackdown is akin to slapping gauze on a festering wound. They argue that the homeless problem won't respond to the aggressive policing that has shown such promise in cutting crime. But cities are so eager to banish street people that many are ignoring long-term prescriptions such as family planning, drug rehabilitation, and job training. "People are on the street because they have nowhere else to be, not because that's where they'd like to be," says Foscarinis. "We know what the policy solutions are, but the main problem is that not enough cities are trying them."

Advocates for the homeless say Florida's Miami-Dade County is on to something. Miami-Dade in 1993 assessed a food and beverage tax on restaurants with annual revenues of $ 400,000 or more. The eateries pay the state 1 percent of sales, which has provided about $ 6 million annually for emergency shelter, transitional housing, job training, and drug treatment. In Chicago, Matt McDermott, a policy specialist for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, points out that police have yanked indigents from Lower Wacker Drive before. But with no services to fall back on, they were back haunting the same neighborhood within six months.

With Mike Tharp