Housing the Homeless

by William C. Hall

(Originally published in the West Volusia Beacon 01-15-09)

Compassion means “sympathy for the suffering of others and generally implies the desire to help those in need.”

In 1948, the United States became a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, delineated under Article 25 (1) of the United Nations Charter. In the language of the declaration: “Everyone has the right to... food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” This is derided by some as a Marxist doctrine and extolled by others as fundamentally humane and Christian.

“Vagrant” is the legal term that has been long applied to those who live on the streets but that terminology has been largely replaced by the more euphemistic “homeless” as descriptive of the mentally ill and/or chemically addicted poor.

As our language has become gentler, our treatment of the homeless has, in many respects, become harsher. Compassion now comes with a qualifying acronym: NIMBY, meaning: “Not In My Back Yard.”

In the days of “hoboes and bums” we had government operated “insane asylums” or “county homes” for the mentally ill, the addict and the destitute. Today we provide more and better services but at a multitude of urban locations that are difficult to access by those who, being homeless and impoverished, lack personal transport. Moreover, those urban service locations activate the NIMBY impulse.

In this time of growing economic hardship the ranks of the homeless are swelling and municipal governments are being urged to arrest and incarcerate “the vagrants.” Thus the very problem that actuates our NIMBY response arises precisely because of the decentralization and segmentation of care facilities.

Michael E. Arth , the creator of the acclaimed Garden District renovation in DeLand, long ago proposed a homeless facility that he dubbed Tiger Bay Village. In Arth's vision, the facility would be located in rural Volusia County and would provide all essential housing and social services in a single location, thereby eliminating the NIMBY issue while also facilitating a more efficient delivery of those social services which we already provide at great expense. His well thought-out plan was alternately scorned as a concentration camp or a country club for the homeless. Ironically, many of those objections arose from the very social service agencies who fear the centralization of services.

Understandably, the agencies that provide food, shelter and care for the homeless have significant investments in facilities throughout the county. Thus the prospect of having to move to a central location would require a major overhaul of the way in which the service providers operate and therefore the campaign, by some, to denigrate the Arth plan as inhumane.

There are, of course, legitimate legal questions about compelling the homeless to live in a specified location as in bygone days when our asylums were likened to London's notorious Bedlam hospital. In the 18th Century the chained and abused inmates were regarded as amusements and visitors paid admission to witness and participate in the torment of the helpless. However, when our latter day reformers abolished institutional care of the homeless, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Indigent care, as currently offered is inefficient, because it is segmented and often inaccessible.

Arth's village concept should be revisited.

Above article - Copyright © 2009 All rights reserved. Carder Hall Media LLC