Editorial: Ending homelessness

Sleeping on a bench in Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia has about 3,000 homeless people.
Sleeping on a bench in Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia has about 3,000 homeless people.
Posted: July 05, 2010

The Obama administration has set an ambitious goal to end homelessness within the next decade. It is a noble plan, but it will take a major commitment to make it a reality.

The plan was announced last month and is the first wide-ranging federal effort to end homelessness. It calls for targeting the most vulnerable homeless populations - children and families and veterans - by providing more rent subsidies. It seeks to prevent and end homelessness.

But the plan - called Opening Doors - was short on details when it was unveiled, namely, how the government would pay for it. And how would it work with existing local programs?

The plan aims to build on a Bush administration initiative that also aimed to end homelessness in 10 years. That program made some inroads but obviously fell far short of its goal.

A big question remains as to whether Congress will provide the needed funding, given the existing budget squeeze. It has yet to fund a program created in 2008 to replenish the supply of affordable rental housing.

In the long run, officials say, ending homelessness will save taxpayers money. It actually costs more to place people in shelters and hospitals than it does to help them find permanent housing.

Shaun Donovan, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, called homelessness "a preventable tragedy." That is especially true in such a wealthy nation.

The latest homeless statistics in a government report show the need for more funding: 1.6 million people spent time in shelters last year. There are about 3,000 homeless people in Philadelphia.

Those numbers will likely only rise as more veterans return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers are already going up as a result of the recession, high unemployment, and mounting foreclosures. Families have been especially hard-hit, with the number of homeless jumping by 30 percent from 2007 to 2009.

Across the region, tent-city camps have been in the public spotlight and stand as disgraceful reminders of the persistent homeless problem. In Harrisburg, as many as 30 people were living in a 10-acre encampment near a state office. They began moving out last month after the property owner complained to police. Residents say the camp has existed for at least 15 years. Meanwhile, Lakewood, N.J., officials went to court this week to evict the homeless from a camp in the Shore town.

A tent city was recently closed in Camden. There are other Third World-like sites in the area where squatters have taken up residence. They are the real-life versions of Tom Joad, the fictional character from The Grapes of Wrath. It's disgraceful and even more reason a federal plan to help keep people off the streets deserves to be a top priority.

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