Homelessness: We’ve Been Here Before

Mark Cote, a regular contributor to this website, recently shared the following essay which he wrote 23 years ago when he served as the Chair of the city of Lowell’s Hunger/Homeless Commission. The essay originally appeared in the Lowell Sun on December 21, 2000, under the title, “Real tragedy of homelessness is America’s acceptance of it.”

Homelessness: We’ve Been Here Before

By Mark Cote

Since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless has sponsored National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day on the first day of winter to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness, and to remember our homeless friends who have paid the ultimate price for our nation’s failure to address the issue.

This year, National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day is today – the first day of winter. Historically, it is a date that signifies an increase in the number of the homeless in our shelters seeking refuge from the increasingly harsh weather. For the past 14 months, however, the majority of shelters in Massachusetts have been at or beyond capacity for the first time in the history of the shelter network.

Homelessness has doubled in this county in the last 10 years and is growing at the rate of 5 percent per year. Annually, two million Americans experience homelessness at some point during the year. At this time in the United States 700,000 men, women and children have nowhere to lay their heads. If a hurricane, tornado or any other disaster had displaced these American citizens, the government would mobilize within hours and begin addressing the problem. Yet, because we have become desensitized to the plight of the homeless, there is no sense of urgency, locally or nationally.

One often-asked question: Who are these people and where did they come from?

The answer is as varied as the background of the folks that are affected. Most are middle-aged men. One in four is a veteran. Others suffer from some form of mental illness. Many struggle with the insidious disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. Record numbers of 18-24 year old young adults who have aged out of the DSS/DYS system are summarily released to the streets with little in the way of job skills, education or support.

On the other end of the spectrum, folks aged 55 and up whose families are unable to care for them and who are incapable of taking care of themselves are now spending their golden years in shelter beds. And still, there are the families – men, women and children – living in cars, abandoned buildings, under bridges. Places not fit for human habitation.

Add to the list the working poor. Over half of those who are currently experiencing some form of homelessness are working every day, yet return to shelter beds at the end of the day instead of their own apartment or home. One of the ironies about the strong economy that we are experiencing is that those at the lower rung of the economic ladder fall through the cracks. When housing costs go up, when car insurance rates are sky high, when child care is $200 per week, when heating fuel is at all-time record highs and the minimum wage is frozen between $6 and $7 per hour, people are struggling. Do the math. At the minimum wage, a worker in the Lowell area would have to work 1-2 hours a week in order to get by. A rising tide does not lift all boats.

In the recent presidential election many issues were discussed and debated. Yet not once, in any debate, forum or press coverage of the election was the issue of homelessness raised or discussed.

At the risk of being pedantic, I offer a starting point for discussion: housing, clean, safe, affordable housing. A place to raise a family, a place to be safe and warm, a place to call home.

Shelter beds are not the answer; they are merely a Band-Aid solution to an increasingly larger problem of a dysfunctional system that feeds on itself. Dollar for dollar it is far more cost-effective to place folks in permanent housing than in temporary shelter beds. And what of the immeasurable benefits of having every person living in an environment that enables them to be a self-sufficient productive member of society, contributing at whatever level they are capable of.

People will die on the streets of America this winter. During this holiday season there will be people who have no home to celebrate in, children who  will wake up to the cold in the back seat of a car instead of the warm glow of a Christmas tree. This cannot go on. Homelessness is unacceptable.

In this great land of ours we can accomplish much. We can settle our political disputes without gunfire, we can come together in times of crisis to work together, and if we put our minds and our resources together, we can end the tragedy of homelessness in our lifetime.

But we have to talk about it. We have to open our eyes and see it. We have to offer alternatives to it.

As we remember those who have died on the streets of this great country, or in a shelter, an abandoned building, under a bridge, wherever they found refuge, let us begin the discussion to bring this national embarrassment to an end.