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Lazy, Crazy or Just Like Us? : How We See the Homeless

August 02, 1992|ALEX RAKSIN | Raksin is Assistant Book Review Editor

Drinking, dime novels, laziness, war, discontent, socialistic ideals, shiftlessness, vice, love of roving, lack of manhood, imbecility, Chinese, the devil.

In the years since the National Conference of Charities and Correction catalogued these "causes of homelessness" in 1886, we have gone to the moon, learned how to transplant hearts, invented computers that can outperform man and harnessed the power of the atom. But as a new stream of spirited and sometimes zealous books on America's underclass reveals, we are still no closer to unraveling the root causes of homelessness than we were in 1886.

True, newspapers recently have hailed an encouraging new consensus between liberals and conservatives about poverty, consensus between liberals and conservatives about poverty, born out of conservatives' acknowledgment that America's underclass has mushroomed in the last two decades (one child in five now lives in poverty, the highest rate in the industrialized world) and out of liberals' admission that welfare may indeed be sowing the seeds of dependency. As Bill Clinton's stump speech puts it, "It's time to move beyond old ideas of 'something for nothing' on the one hand, and 'every person for himself' on the other."

The problem is that this "new consensus" is hardly new: "A hand up, not a handout," was, after all, the central idea behind Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s. And when we venture beyond election-year rhetoric into the nitty-gritty policy dilemmas that animate these books, the sweet consensus dissolves into a kaleidoscope of often bitter factionalism.

It's no secret why we can't "just get along." The reason, as these authors' disparate conceptions of the homeless make clear, is that we all project profoundly different images onto that faceless abstraction, "the poor."

* The homeless are crazy.

The notion that most readily strikes casual street observers can be summarized somewhat crudely as "the homeless are crazy." Homeless advocates are quick to point out that the woman being assaulted by an invisible adversary or the alcoholic sleeping away the afternoon on a sidewalk represent only the sickest segment of the population. But many conservative writers remain incredulous when homeless advocates claim that there is an invisible majority of mentally healthy homeless who dress and behave in ways that hide their predicament.

In his impressively pragmatic, if politically incorrect book "Rude Awakenings," for instance, Richard White, a federal anti-poverty program administrator from 1964-81, argues that "there are far fewer homeless than advocates claim, but their problems are much worse than is commonly admitted. Serious mental illness, substance abuse, and family breakdown are the norm rather than the exception." Many of these homeless, White believes, are casualties of "deinstitutionalization," the mass release of mental hospital inpatients in the 1960s and '70s. The patients were to be cared for by a network of community mental-health centers (CMHCs), but because of a fiscal shell game played between Washington and local governments, and of a preference among some mental health officials for treating what psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey has called "the worried well," many of the seriously mentally ill were abandoned to the streets.

* The homeless are lazy.

The second commonly held notion about America's poor--best summarized as "the homeless are lazy"--can be seen in a provocative book by the former deputy research director of the Republican National Committee, Lawrence Mead. "Most of the poor do not work, so they cannot take advantage of most of the benefits that government and the economy offer," Mead writes. Mead is not entirely without sympathy for the homeless; in part, he writes, they are victims of "dependency politicians" who grimly tell the underclass, "You are powerless victims of an oppressive society." "A 'closed opportunity structure' does not exist for most people in America," Mead writes, "but it does for those who believe it does."

* The homeless are us.

The third notion found frequently in these books--"the homeless are us"--is the one most favored by homeless advocates for its power to compel even the staunchest conservative to support social welfare spending. After all, if anyone can fall off the ladder of opportunity, no one can doubt the necessity of a safety net. While "lazy" and "crazy" theorists believe homelessness is the product of character defects, this school points to baneful social, political and economic forces.

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