Homelessness: A Blight On Our Streets and a Blot On Our Conscience.

| Mon Jul. 17, 2006 7:33 PM EDT

The annual conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) is going on in Washington Monday through Thursday. Mike Bloomberg spoke there today, announcing a new, more aggressive approach to street homelessness in New York City. As reported by the Times, he brushed aside the widely held view that homelessness is a stubborn feature of urban life, to be managed but not eradicated:

"Our view is that any level of street homeless, no matter how reduced in scope and visibility, is an inexcusable civic failure that consigns our fellow human beings to lives tragically shortened by exposure to the elements, to the ravages of disease, and to their own self-destructive behavior. Such chronic homelessness remains a blight on our streets and a blot on our conscience."

Well said.

As best anyone can tell, around 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children (PDF), are likely to experience homelessness in a given year, and the number of homeless has been rising over the past 20-25 years (PDF), thanks largely to a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty (in turn a function of eroding work opportunities). Homelessness in New York is down from its high three years ago. (I'm not aware of research finding the same trend nationally.)

Bloomberg's administration has committed to creating thousands of new units of supportive housing and providing more services (job training, day care) to keep the formerly homeless from sliding back. Good moves. Mother Jones published an article last year about an approach to supportive housing pioneered in New York City in the 1990s. Called Pathways to Housing, the program is premised on the idea that reversing the order of services to put housing first produces much better results with no greater costs. And it works! Since it launched, Pathways has moved hundreds of mentally ill and homeless New Yorkers into apartments.