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HOMELESSNESS: A RIGHTS-BASED PERSPECTIVE

shelter (NASW, 2011). President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation helped define the 1960s and ‘70s. This legislation, along with the War on Poverty, provided economic opportunities for poor people through federally funded welfare programs (NASW, 2011). Unfortunately, these programs did not address deficits in low-income housing or provide enough economic stimulus to raise individuals out of extreme poverty. Homelessness was not seen as a large enough problem at the time to provoke the policy changes necessary to address it. However, by the mid-1980s, the issue of homelessness was undeniable. Conservative policies defunding mental institutions, rising housing costs, and inadequate care for veterans who had returned from Vietnam produced a sharp increase in the homeless population (NASW, 2011). For the first time, substantial homeless encampments in public spaces were visible to the public at large, sparking a national debate about the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to homelessness. Media coverage and conservative policies relapsed back to the pre-Depression views of individual causation and the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor (NASW, 2011). The Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 reflected this and only provided relief for those in need of emergency shelter, especially those with a disability or mental illness (NASW, 2011), leaving the rest to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (provided that they had them). Shelter accommodations increased two-fold between 1988 and 1996 in an attempt to meet an ever-rising demand, pointing to the utter failure of the policies of the decade (NASW, 2011). The 1990s offered no respite to the procession of ill-conceived policies regarding poverty and homelessness. The final blow to any semblance of responsible policy was struck in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended welfare as we know it” (NASW, 2011, p. 181). This Act eliminated the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, replaced it with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, and slashed the budget of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by nearly three quarters (NASW, 2011). While the policies of the 1980s and ‘90s were undoubtedly disastrous, leaving approximately 3.5 million Americans homeless and hopeless (NAEH, 2000), they have provided a guide for precisely what not to do. In the last decade over 200 local governments have put together 10 year plans to end chronic homelessness (UHCDD, 2014). The efficacy of these plans has varied, but as a whole, they represent a step in the right direction and will be discussed further in the following section. The shifting policies regarding homelessness over the past century and their ineffectiveness suggest two conclusions. First, homelessness is a systemic issue: there are no “worthy” and “unworthy” homeless; there are only the desperate and extremely desperate, both of whom have the right to a home. Second, while some see homelessness as a complex issue, homelessness is fundamentally a function of two variables: housing and poverty. Policies that fail to address these points are not only ineffective, but potentially damaging to the communities they serve. A new approach is needed, one which hearkens back to FDR’s mandate for a housing as a right. The most responsible and effective policy to end homelessness in the U.S. is to provide every man, woman, and child with the legal right to a secure home.

8

Alexander Mayer

Discussion In the year 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) published a policy guideline entitled A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years. Since that time, a number of state, county, and local governments have drafted plans of their own, using the NAEH plan as their template. Of these plans, none has received more media coverage or claimed more success than Salt Lake County’s, which is where the vast majority of Utah’s homeless reside (SLCCG, 2006). Before delving into Salt Lake County’s plan regarding the homeless, it is important to define what being homeless means. The current legal definition of the term “homeless” as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development is as follows: 1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night time residence; 2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is — a. a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transi tional housing for the mentally ill); b. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or c. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. (Tars & Egleson, 2009, p. 207) It is important to note that the “and” between sections 1 and 2 is read restrictively, meaning that both conditions must be present for an individual to be considered homeless (Tars & Egleson, 2009). By interpreting the law in such a way, this definition allows for only those in shelters, halfway houses, or sleeping in public spaces to receive relief services. In addition to using the HUD definition of homelessness provided above, the Salt Lake County plan, entitled New Vision, New Opportunities: Ten-year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, defines chronic homelessness as “those unaccompanied persons who have been homeless and are either on the street for at least one year or, those with a disabling condition who have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness within the last three years” (SLCCG, 2006, p. 1). Using this definition, the county identified 566 individuals, out of 2,738 total homeless, who were chronically homeless (SLCCG, 2006). These individuals represent the target population eligible for services under the plan. The plan’s goal was to eliminate chronic homelessness in Salt Lake County, which, aside from the obvious humanitarian benefits, would provide large savings to the county, as the chronic homeless, who at the time of the plan’s implementation represented 20% of the homeless population, used over 50% of the resources (SLCCG, 2006). The primary service provided by the plan is housing. Over ten years, 600 new units of housing would be built to house the chronically homeless (SLCCG, 2006). Using the “Housing First” approach, which forgoes requirements such as sobriety, individuals would qualify for services so long as they fit the definition of chronically homeless. Once housed, the government connects individuals to existing support services, such as TANF, that would provide rent assistance and medical and mental health services, including substance abuse

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Hinckley Journal 2017  

The Hinckley Journal of Politics is the only undergraduate-run journal of politics in the nation and strives to publish scholarly papers of...

Hinckley Journal 2017  

The Hinckley Journal of Politics is the only undergraduate-run journal of politics in the nation and strives to publish scholarly papers of...

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