(sub–chapter from Labor III from The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems)

By Michael E. Arth

Dying Beggar in India Homelessness is a serious worldwide problem with about a billion people living in substandard housing and 100 million people living without any housing. In the United States a 12–month survey was done in 2006–2007 that showed almost 1.6 million homeless persons, with 473,541 of this number being families. In January 2007 there were about 672,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons, and about 124,000 chronically homeless people at one time. About 82% are not chronically homeless, thus explaining why there are more homeless people over a 12–month period. Sixty–four percent are minorities, 69% are men, 13% are veterans, and 77% live in the center of cities. Two–thirds of them have mental health or substance abuse issues.

Homeless Elderly Woman

My personal dealings with the homeless brought home these statistics. In 2005, an older, recently divorced woman came to visit me in the Garden District. She was looking to move from the bigger city where she had been living in search of a quieter life. I gave her a tour of our newly renovated neighborhood with its historic homes, picket fences, and tree–lined pedestrian lanes. She signed a lease–purchase agreement to buy a charming, one–bedroom bungalow from me and moved in. Shortly thereafter she went back to where she was moving from for a week to finish some business. When she got back she called me up in hysterics. All I could make out was that she was leaving town immediately and the deal was off. She was so upset that it took me a while to figure out what had happened. During the week, a vagrant had broken into the house and set up housekeeping. He ate her food, slept in her bed, rifled through her clothing, went through her personal items, and used her bathroom. A bag with his things in it was still there when she came home, indicating that he intended to stay for a while. I was outraged by the violation of her privacy and was disappointed by the loss of a sale at a time when I really needed it. However, it got me thinking seriously about the homeless issue and it marked the beginning of a personal odyssey to find a solution to homelessness that could work everywhere.

With the best of intentions, a church two blocks from my house had caused an added influx of the homeless into our neighborhood by offering free meals to the hungry. There was no free lodging attached to the meals, so the homeless at first took to camping out under an awning at the entrance to the church. This went on for a few weeks before the church decided to run them off. After that they fanned out over the neighborhood and slept on or under our porches, in our yards, or wherever they could. The crime rate, which had been brought low through several years of diligence and urban rejuvenation, started to inch back up. When crossing the neighborhood on foot I found little groups of homeless people camping out in patches of woods, or on my property, surrounded by trash. There was a knifing incident, and a medical helicopter landed in the middle of our neighborhood to transport the victim. The litter that I was already in the habit of picking up on a daily basis began to increase. There was more graffiti, and nerves were on edge as panhandlers spread throughout the downtown area. A deranged man took up residence on a sidewalk bench downtown and talked to himself in a loud voice that could still be heard over the noise coming from his boom box. My unofficial role as the New Urban Cowboy was tested–almost as much as it had been with the drug dealers back in ‘01 when I first arrived in the neighborhood. I ran off a homeless person who became hostile with a female neighbor of mine after she refused to give him money. I called the cops dozens of times as I came across vagrants fighting with each other, drunks passed out, and gnarly–looking intruders lurking in the shadows. I also uncovered a graffito a few hundred feet from my house that offered an alternative view of my role in the neighborhood: “F**k Natzi 4 eyez thatz u wight man.”

I didn't light up the ovens but I did march over to the church and had a chat with the pastor about how their good intentions were aggravating a problem throughout downtown DeLand and the Garden District. The pastor insisted that his church was doing God's work by administering to the poor and it was up to the rest of us to solve the other problems. I said that the location of the church's soup kitchen was making it a bad neighbor, and reminded him that loving all of one's neighbors was supposed to be an honored Christian tradition. I think we both felt bad after the meeting, but the meals continued to be served and the problem escalated.

Tension and resentment continued to grow. Some took the law into their own hands. Five teenagers beat up a homeless man a block from my house. Another one was knocked off his bicycle and beaten. A homeless man I had known personally for years was found dead. It appeared that he had been beaten and robbed. In December 2006, one of my neighbors who was renting a house I had helped restore, shot a mentally disturbed homeless man on his back step who had brandishing a knife. The injured man ran next door, crawled behind a bush, curled up the fetal position, and died. He was found the next day. The incident occurred three houses away from the house where I live with my wife and our young daughter.

The last incident was the final straw for me. Maggi Hall, the realtor, preservationist, and neighborhood activist who had originally invited me to buy property in DeLand, called a meeting to discuss options. My neighbors and I had just spent the previous five years rebuilding a slum neighborhood into the “Historic Garden District.” By living amidst and employing both the homeless and the working poor–groups that included ex–cons, substance abusers, and those with mental disabilities-I developed a lot of empathy for those struggling on the fringes of society. However, as a landlord and a family man, I also experienced anger and resentment as I was confronted with break-ins, littering, violent crime, and all the other problems associated with homelessness. It seemed to me that the current piecemeal approach to the homeless issue, practiced in my area as well as everywhere else in the country, was not working very well.

Many communities seemed to be operating under the fear that ministering to the homeless would act as a magnet. This has created a policy of negative one-upmanship as neighborhoods and towns all across the country seek to export their problem to their neighbor, sometimes even giving homeless people bus tickets to go elsewhere. Some of the homeless in DeLand reported that police in Daytona Beach had done just that, giving them a bus ticket and telling them about the free meals at the church. I argued that it could be a source of great pride if Volusia County took a principled stand to create a national prototype for the proper treatment of the homeless. It will cost less both financially and socially, but ultimately it is the right thing to do.

Neighbors at the meeting were upset and concerned. I suggested that we consolidate the 19 different homeless agencies that were spread over two counties into one attractive village where we could more efficiently and humanely deal with the various issues related to the adult homeless – not of the least of which being employment. Over the next few months there were various meetings to discuss the idea, and the story of what we were trying to do made the national news. Even the Jon Stewart Show called – but I suspected it was to make fun of it as a “country club for the homeless.” They backed off when they saw that it was not as wacky as the story heading made it seem, but rather a plan that would save money and seriously address the problem.

Our current approach does not work and increasing the budget without changing our strategy is throwing good money after bad. At one of our meetings a reporter told me he saw a disheveled man steal a candy bar from a store, walk outside, and then wait for the police. The arresting officer returned the unwrapped candy bar to the store and the man was taken to jail where he got the proverbial “three hots and a cot.” That arrest and jail visit cost more than a night in Manhattan's Ritz–Carlton, but the taxpayers got off comparably cheap. I personally know a homeless man in my neighborhood, a mentally ill person who allegedly holds a university degree, who suffers from schizophrenia and alcoholism. Every time he gets drunk enough to pass out, a team of police, fire, and EVAC personnel take him to the ER. This is followed by several days at rehabilitation. At thousands of dollars per incident, plus all the other trouble and expenses he has run up with agencies and individuals over the years, it is obvious that he has cost society a fortune. It is also obvious that, despite sporadic well–intentioned efforts, we have not done this man any good.

Emergency Response  Police Investigate  EMS Evacuation

I proposed building a Pedestrian Village for the adult homeless near Daytona Beach. The county owned site already had a wide variety of services, including a jail, a prison, and various drug rehabilitation centers. The lakeside village, surrounded by a forested greenbelt, could have architecturally appealing housing ranging from multi–bed barracks to Katrina Cottages. The residents could build and maintain the village themselves, and could also tend the community garden and orchard. There could be a labor placement service that could provide prescreened workers to local businesses, something I could have used when I was rebuilding the Garden District. It was always a roll of the dice whenever I hired workers from the day labor agencies because I rarely had any solid information about their background and they usually had no verifiable address. Once I unknowingly hired a murderer and sex offender who stabbed to death the wife of one of my other workers over a plate of food.

Proposed Tiger Bay Village Plan

Proposed Tiger Bay Village Site

The village could meet the needs of the temporarily homeless and also those who, for their own safety and the safety of others, should have some buffer from the wider world. For much less than we spend now treating the homeless like packs of stray dogs, we could instead enable them to have housing and amenities that would be a temporary stop for most, and a permanent solution for some. We pay dearly for the misery that unhappy and maladjusted people inflict upon themselves and others. When the basic physical and psychological needs of the homeless are not met, it becomes impossible to properly address their psychiatric needs. Everyone needs food, clothing, attractive shelter, meaningful work, a sense of purpose, love, hope, empowerment, community solidarity, and a connection with nature. Without these things, even the most privileged among us would have a hard time finding fulfillment in life. Funding cutbacks dating back to the 1970s have driven many of those suffering from mental disabilities into the street. These people, combined with other homeless people, find themselves scorned and resented as they shuttle among agencies and charities. Spreading the services around has only limited applications because it is inefficient, and it creates powerful resistance from those who do not want homeless services and shelters in their neighborhood. This insures that the homeless are driven into ugly, crime-ridden areas where their psychological needs cannot be properly met, and increases the odds that they will end up in jail. Instead of building social institutions, the U.S. has built jails and prisons at a rate six to eight times that of Canada and Europe. Building Pedestrian Villages would attract those who would otherwise commit crimes to get out of the weather, and act as a halfway house for those leaving jail or prison. Instead of expanding the county jail, as is now the plan for the Tiger Bay site, a bed can be added in a village on the same land for a fraction of the cost. A village resident will have a chance to be a better person, instead of being surrounded by criminals in jail who will teach him to be a better criminal. I do not have all the answers, and some details will have to be worked out as we go along. Nevertheless, I believe that in building a village we will discover a compassionate, effective, and affordable model for solving the homeless crisis that can work anywhere. It's worth a try.

Even for those of us who are able to keep our heads above water, our needs are not being met very well by our American cities, which are designed more for automobiles than for people. Automobile-oriented urban design and architecture is typically ugly, unhealthy, demoralizing, inefficient, and has greatly contributed to a wide variety of problems-most notably an economically and environmentally disastrous energy policy that is dependent on foreign oil. The smartest kind of smart growth is a form of New Urbanism called New Pedestrianism (See Labor IX: Urbanism). In compact, ecological Pedestrian Villages, automobiles are confined to attractive rear streets and tree-lined pedestrian lanes are always in front of homes and businesses. Everyone lives within a short walk or bike ride to a village center, and public transportation need only to connect the centers. Pedestrian Villages are for everyone, and that's why I have proposed them not only for higher income developments, but also for Kisima Kaya, a new town with affordable housing proposed in Kenya, and for a solution to homelessness in the U.S. All new neighborhoods and towns should be Pedestrian Villages, for they are the best way to address the problems that beset our cities. In the case of Pedestrian Villages for the homeless, or for others who do not own cars, these villages can be nearly car-free, thus saving on infrastructure and maintenance.

The 12 Herculean Problems of Homelessness

  1. 1.  Politics – Our scattered agencies are bloated with bureaucratic waste, and homeless industry employees have become attached to the status quo.

  2. 2.  Overpopulation – a lack of family planning has increased poverty, caused more unwanted births, increased immigration, and created more homelessness.

  3. 3.  Poverty – We have an impoverished attitude toward the homeless. We fear helping them because we fear being impoverished ourselves by their increasing numbers. The fear of becoming a magnet and attracting more homeless people insures that the meager help available is so unappealing that only the most desperate will take advantage of it.

  4. 4.  Drugs – substance abuse of all sorts, especially alcohol and tobacco, affects most homeless persons. This issue has been exacerbated by the War on Drugs, which is really a War on the Poor.

  5. 5.  Environment – The existence of poor, homeless people, many up to no good, degrades the quality of life (especially theirs). People don't want them in their neighborhoods. Wooded areas are being clear-cut to make sure that the homeless don't set up camps. The intimidating presence of the homeless and their litter has ruined many parks. In the bigger picture, climate change may be increasing the number of natural disasters (like Hurricane Katrina), which in turn leads to more homelessness.

  6. 6.  Justice – How we treat the least among us bears directly on our sense of justice. In some sense, it has become illegal to be poor. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, it appears that we jail those who we do not know how to help. We should do what we can to help others help themselves, and especially help those who cannot help themselves, in order to improve our society for the benefit of all. None of us know where we will end up.

  7. 7.  Economics – Unemployment and other economic disasters, caused by the declining value of unskilled labor, and rapidly changing job requirements have exacerbated the problem of the homelessness. We spend far too much money doing a very poor job dealing with the resulting homelessness.

  8. 8.  Transportation – our automobile oriented society creates a formidable barrier to getting a foothold. If you don't have a car, or can't drive, you will be out of luck in most American cities. Only the city centers are compact enough to make public transportation work.

  9. 9.  Urbanism – the flight to the suburbs, and the overwhelming dominance of automobile-oriented architecture and infrastructure has created inner city slums where the homeless are both pushed and drawn. This makes it difficult to rebuild the inner cities and make them habitable again. There is a lack of affordable housing. The cost of permits, and building requirements, in addition to the cost of land and construction insures that housing costs will remain high. We lack a community where the homeless can unlearn hopelessness and become part of something bigger than themselves.

  10. 10.  Health – Living outside is extremely hard on the health with exposure to weather, diseases, lack of nutrition, violence, and substance abuse. Life expectancy drops by a year for every three years spent homeless. A lack of universal health care makes a mockery of preventative health, leaving taxpayers to absorb the higher cost of publicly financed emergency hospital care. Our society's solution to substance abuse, a health care issue, has been turned into a law enforcement issue. The mentally ill often end up in the street because of a lack of comprehensive mental health care.

  11. 11.  Religion – The churches and other charities want to help, but they often work at cross–purposes by putting Band–Aids on disparate problems that need comprehensive solutions. Soup kitchens often disrupt the communities they are in by drawing the homeless into the inner cities. Shelters and missions are usually in ugly, traffic–ridden, drug–infested, high–crime areas, which are not conducive to improving mental health, rehabilitation, or work creation. When they are proposed in anyone's neighborhood they unleash a huge NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) backlash. We need a well–organized, and non–controversial outlet for the urge to help others that will also help ourselves.

  12. 12.  The Future – The solution is to build Pedestrian Villages connected to public transportation that consolidates all the agencies and addresses each of these problems. This solution does not apply to families with children, who should instead be immediately assimilated back into the communities with housing as the top priority.

We have been attempting to build a prototypical village in Volusia County, where I live, that could try out these ideas. The ideal spot in our area borders the Tiger Bay State Forest near the population center of our two county region, on county–owned land four miles west of Daytona Beach on U.S. 92. “Tiger Bay Village” would be adjacent to a wide range of facilities that already cater to the needs of those in trouble. The mostly car-free village would be built incrementally, allowing us to assess what kind of buildings and facilities are needed over the years. County funding may come as it is demonstrated that the village saves money elsewhere. There would be private, state and federal financing, donations, residents' payments, and contributions from various agencies. The generous private charities and individuals will have a central location to which to direct their donations of money, clothes, furniture, food, and services. They will also in good conscience be able to direct any panhandlers to the village, thus vastly reducing the urban presence of the homeless that is decimating local neighborhoods and turning central business districts into slums.

Initial basic funding could be handled by a 1% “sin tax” on alcohol, suggested by a good friend of mine, Bill Hall, who has strongly supported the plan. A daily budget of $30 per person, combined with the construction cost of $17,500 per resident, amortized over 20 years, would result in an average daily cost of $32.40, almost all of which would be paid by the income of the homeless (whether from their federal aid or from their wages). Compare this to the estimated $100,000 per resident for building prisons, or to the 2007 Department of Justice study showing that we spend $60 billion a year on jails and prisons, which works out to $88 per person per day, without any hope of offset income. Also compare this to the even higher cost of our current Band–Aid approach, which consists of endless police/fire/EVAC responses, emergency room and hospital care, jail, problematical shelters, public assistance, charity, and extra psychiatric care, coupled with the inestimable social and psychological costs. No funding would be necessary from the current county budget, but only in future years as it is demonstrated that the village saves expenditures elsewhere. At this point there could be supplemental funding from the two counties and surrounding municipalities. There would be private, state and federal financing, donations, and contributions from various agencies. There could even be unique fund raising efforts, such as donations of individual cottages in which the donors can even pick out the designs. The average homeless person has a median income in excess of $300 per month, so they can also contribute most of that, and maybe more if their income can be raised through village efforts.

I argued that instead of being a collection of towns seeking to export our homeless problem elsewhere, we should take a principled stand to provide shelter here in Volusia County. Not only is it the right thing to do, it will cost less both financially and socially in the long run. Tiger Bay Village could serve people being released from rehab or incarceration, and house those who do not need to be institutionalized, yet cannot function on their own. It could provide a temporary sanctuary for those leaving an abusive spouse. The village would serve the elderly indigent, the mentally ill, those with substance abuse issues and those who are refused other public housing assistance. It could also serve sexual predators who may find their housing options severely restricted in other places. This would have the additional benefit of being place that is free of children that might otherwise be in put in harm's way.

Housing could be structured in order to protect the vulnerable, but good behavior would result from meeting people's basic needs, and giving them a purpose, a refuge and the chance to live in a beautiful place free of the scorn they received when they were forced to survive in a dangerous urban environment.

The village, with its storm–resistant buildings, could also provide emergency shelter. Housing would range from multi–bed barracks to Katrina–style cottages, such as were proposed for small permanent housing after Hurricane Katrina that are being used instead of disposable FEMA trailers. The type of housing one gets would be based on a merit system and sliding scale that is determined by helpfulness in the community, behavior, ability to pay rent, substance abuse, and other factors. Some of the multi–bed facilities, with broad raised porches and columns, would face and encircle a central commons. The barracks and dormitory buildings would provide individual lockers for stowing personal effects. Instead of trailers, tents or industrial style architecture that would only reinforce the learned hopelessness and helplessness of their previous circumstances, all the buildings would be designed in a local, traditional style that would help uplift the spirits of the residents instead of creating the feeling of a slum or prison camp.

Katrina Cottages

Eventually there could be several dedicated commercial buildings, and one medical and mental health treatment center. An unspecified number of residential facilities will be mixed-use to include offices, small businesses and other facilities. There will be mercantile areas where residents can create things or set up shop to provide services. The police or sheriff could operate a substation on site to keep the peace.

There could be dining halls, a general store, a thrift shop stocked with donations from the public, a medical clinic and dispensary, a small library with computers and media, and various psychiatric and rehabilitation services. A special onsite bank will allow them to have accounts and debit cards. Existing bus service connects to area cities.

Able–bodied residents would be employed and be paid for helping to build and maintain the village. A day–labor facility would provide certified workers to the public. A community garden and orchard would supplement the meals served in the dining halls. It would be a refuge and a thriving community in a beautiful lakeside setting that any of us would be proud to visit and support. When the plan was reported in the papers and on the news an angry woman called me up. She said, “Why should I as a taxpayers have to pay anything for these lazy bums? I'm a Christian woman and Jesus said that there will always be poor among us.”

Even though I do not follow any organized religion, I know the Bible well enough to know that it can be used to argue both sides of just about any issue. I did not get the “verily” in there but I reminded her of Matthew 25:40 that has Jesus saying, “Verily, I say unto you, as you do it to one of the least of these my brothers, you do it to me.” For good measure I asked her what she thought about the Golden Rule, found not only in two books of the New Testament but also in other texts stretching deep into antiquity. It was a short conversation.

The head of the county council supported the plan at first blush on what I assume to be secular grounds, but he later told the press that the county owned site was unsuitable for development because it was “too swampy.” I called him to discuss the topology, and told him that the existing canal bordering the land is 8 feet below grade, which helps with drainage, and that any existing wetlands could remain as such. The grade could be raised even more on suitable ground from the fill taken from construction of the retention pond that is required in every development in Florida. I also told him the retention pond could be landscaped to look natural, and made the centerpiece of the village. He did not argue the point. Instead he said that the land was not zoned residential and was instead earmarked for expansion of the existing county jail (which I might add was also built on fill from a retention pond) told him that we could save a lot of money by reducing the number of residents going into the county jail by building this village, and asked him whether he preferred having residents living on that land inside of an attractive village where people were free to come or go or have residents living on that land inside of a prison for many times the cost. Finally he answered that the issue came down to the fact that the director of the 19 different homeless agencies was against it because she did not want to take the homeless out of the heart of the city, and he could not support the village idea if she was against it.

During the process of fighting for the homeless village, I met the executive director of Serenity House of Volusia, Randy Croy. He gave me a tour of a homeless facility he ran in a rural area near DeLand-Serenity House West – and suggested that this site might form the kernel of a village. The site was only 10 acres, but after getting nowhere with the county on the other site, I decided to give it try. I drew up a plan and we met with county planners. We were told that the current agricultural zoning would force us to run an arduous, controversial, and expensive two to three year gauntlet without any guarantee of success. This was discouraging to Randy but it inspired him to do a study on a targeted sample of 22 people who formerly who had been chronically homeless. The study, involving 14 men and 8 women, looked at how much money was saved by taxpayers when there was focused and purposeful treatment, including housing. The study showed that the public spent $463,256 a year for the group for such things as jail, ambulance services, and hospitals when they were homeless, compared to $21,057 a year when they received comprehensive services and housing – a 22 to 1 cost differential. This study was not a random sample, and did not include costs related to the child–welfare system, for example, but it clearly shows that treatment is far better than the piece meal approach. After treatment and housing was provided, Randy also found that they were able to “turn the person around and help them become productive.” This means that the amount of money spent on the group could fall even further as some of the members become fully integrated back into society. Before getting help, Mike Gurin ate out of dumpsters and was in detox treatment almost 30 times in less than two years before the program. Though intervention he overcame alcoholism and now helps others as a counselor's aid. He is also pursuing a college degree to become a full–time substance abuse counselor. Gurin's fiancee, St. Clair, has bipolar disorder, but she kicked her cocaine addiction through the program. She said.

A lot of people think it's a waste of money for treatment and that they did it to themselves and they should sleep in the beds they made. I think it's important to have this study to show people that even if treatment doesn't stick the first time, it's still cheaper than keeping people out on the streets.

We know with certainty that the usual piecemeal approach of dealing with homelessness has proven to be a costly failure, but that comprehensive treatment combined with housing works better and costs far less. I believe that we can increase the success of the treatment/housing approach by building attractive, full-service villages for the homeless, and that it is only a matter of time before it will be tried.

Copyright © 2009 by Michael E. Arth. All rights reserved. For more about The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems and how to address the world's other problems, go to www.laborsofhercules.org. (footnotes to this chapter can be found in the print version)