Politics & Policy

Inventing Homelessness

EDITOR’S NOTE: The August 31, 1992, issue of National Review, set out to set the record straight about the Reagan administration’s economic record. We reprint the content of the issue here.

“Mr. Reagan and Congress’s housing cutbacks are directly responsible for the homeless problem,” announced the late grand provocateur Mitch Snyder on the eve of the October 1989 Housing Now! March. Representative Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) was also getting in his licks: “The Reagan Administration systematically decimated the nation’s [low-income] housing supply.” Homelessness, as much as AIDS, became during the Eighties an issue fully engaging Left-collectivism’s passions for attaching guilt to the accumulation of wealth, rejecting empiricism, and projecting political explanations onto personal problems.

Homelessness was destined to become a national problem during the 1983-89 economic boom, precisely because it was a political, rather than an economic, phenomenon. By anointing derelicts as “homeless,” overstating their presence, and attributing their status to the false consciousness of people in a rat race for success, activists found an effective strategy to encourage Americans to disavow the values that lead to prosperity (including good housing). Consider this comment by homeless activist Jeff Dietrich, in a guest editorial in the November 26, 1988, Los Angeles Times.

We in the Catholic Worker Community believe that the problem of homelessness in America goes to the heart of our problems as a culture. And we believe that our country’s culture is rotten because our system is rotten . . . The driving force of our culture today seems to be the elimination of all those who do not have a degree in computer science, sell Tupperware, or teach aerobics.

Oh, that fiendish Tupperware!

With a few stray exceptions like Richard White, author of the recent Rude Awakenings (ICS Press), almost no one understands how homelessness became a super-issue, and why the major media still present as “news” the fabrications of homeless activists. The case rests on two statistical falsehoods – one concerning the number of homeless people; the other, the availability of affordable rental housing.

Maestro of Homelessness

“The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie,” Joseph Schumpeter once wrote. It is 1982, and Mitch Snyder is about to “go national.” Snyder had been known since the mid Seventies in the Washington, D.C., area as something of a zany. He and fellow members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), originally an anti-war group, having discovered the issue of homelessness, instigated hunger strikes, squatting, vandalism, and other happenings for the local homeless.

In 1990, Mr. Snyder, along with a colleague, Mary Ellen Hombs, conducted an informal nationwide survey of homeless-shelter operators. In 1982 they summarized the results in a monograph, Homelessness in America: A Forced March to Nowhere. According to the authors, 1 per cent, or some 2.2 million, of all Americans lacked shelter. They added: “We are convinced the number of homeless people in the United States could reach 3 million or more during 1983.” Mr. Snyder and Miss Hombs failed to explain how they arrived at such estimates. The General Accounting Office in 1988 reviewed 83 studies on homelessness, finding only 27 to be useful. Homelessness in America was not among them.

The major media, on the other hand, saw the CCNV survey as a springboard for a crusade against President Reagan. In short order, “3 million homeless” became enshrined in newspaper headlines and television feature stories. (Old habits are hard to break. On the March 26, 1991, DBS Evening News, Harold Dow reported: “In New York there are an estimated 70,000 homeless people, three million across America. A problem that got a lot worse during the boom times of the Eighties.”)

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for months on the hot spot, conducted a study of its own. Thorough and professional, A Report to the Secretary on the Homeless and Emergency Shelters (1984) concluded that the number of homeless probably ranged from 250,000 to 350,000, and that emergency shelters, far from bursting at the seams, were only about two-thirds full.

The Left, understanding the political cost if HUD’s analysis were widely accepted, reacted with swift outrage. Mitch Snyder coaxed Congress to inquire into the “undercount.” Though Mr. Snyder admitted in testimony that his own estimate was meaningless (in 1989 Miss Hombs told me the same thing), House Joint Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez (D., Tex.) was moved to compare HUD’s estimate with denials of the Nazi Holocaust.

Recklessly inflating the number of homeless on a local basis is also good sport. This spring, former President Jimmy Carter observed that when he left office, the homeless in Atlanta numbered 1,200, but they now number 15,000. Carter did not cite his source of information.

Finally, the homeless can be redefined to include people “at risk” of losing their housing. In 1989, for example, David Schwartz and John Glascock, of the American Affordable Housing Institute at Rutgers University, authored a frequently cited study, Combating Homelessness, which concluded that 4 million to 14 million American families are “living on the knife edge of homelessness.” That’s a lot like saying that millions of American married couples are “living on the knife edge of divorce.”

Second String

The second element in the statistical charade was that there was a Reagan-inspired cut in federal rent subsidies by some 70 to 85 per cent, and that it forced people out of their dwellings. Richard Celeste, then Democratic governor of Ohio, speaking at the “Housing Now!” rally, denounced “the $24 billion that was denied to the poor and the powerless who depended on HUD for housing”. Sociologist Richard Applebaum, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, referred to a “cut” in the federal housing budget from $32 billion to $6 billion and raised the possibility of housing riots at sometime in the future.

Let the record show: The reduction in the HUD budget during fiscal years 1981-83 was from $34.2 billion to $16.6 billion (a little more than 50 per cent). More importantly, it was a cut in authorizations, not outlays. As Annelise Anderson explains (p. 49)(?), and an authorization merely sets a spending limit, much as a Visa or Mastercard account establishes a personal credit line. Money authorized reveals nothing about money spent. A federal agency conceivably can receive a zero-dollar authorization for a given year, and still raise its outlays by drawing upon unspent authorizations from prior years.

The table on this page (?) reveals that HUD outlays went up during the Reagan years (fiscal 1981-89) by roughly one-third and are increasing even more rapidly under President Bush. Also going up substantially since the early 1980s has been the number of low-income households on the housing dole.

The anomaly of rising outlays and falling authorizations is attributable mainly to Congress’s cancellation of programs committing HUD to subsidizing rents over several decades in new apartment projects, and its shift of funds toward the rent-certificate and voucher programs, which subsidize tenants of existing housing. Ironically, because of the backlog of construction projects approved during the Carter years, a great many federally subsidized apartments opened their doors under President Reagan anyway. Indeed, as William Tucker reported in these pages (September 25, 1987), almost three times as many apartments were completed under the public-housing program during 1981-84 as during 1977-80.

Federal subsidies aside, the total year-round housing stock grew from 89.6 million dwellings in 1981 to 102.8 million in 1989 (14.7 per cent), according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. There was especially room at the inn for renters, presumably the population most at risk of becoming homeless. In 1981 the rental vacancy rate stood at 5.0 per cent; by 1989 the rate was 7.1 per cent, according to the Bureau’s H-111 series.

Homeless Visible

So the two statistical linchpins of the Reagan-did-it hypothesis stand as frauds. The statistical phase of the homeless debate, by any reasonable expectation, ought to be over, and Mr. Reagan ought to stand exonerated. Yet the Left will not yield. They know the political value of making the homeless visible to as many random observers as possible.

Homelessness, Eighties-style, has its genesis in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, overturning the convictions of several persons on vagrancy charges in Jacksonville, Florida. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas rationalized: “Persons ‘wandering or strolling’ from place to place have been extolled by Walt Whitman and Vachel Lindsay.”

This radical redefinition of rights gradually acquired a deadly political force. Local governments found it difficult to evict vagrants from parks, sidewalks, bus terminals, and other public amenities. Indeed, fearing the bad publicity that now greeted attempts to evict, they allowed the problem to get worse, despite growing complaints from commuters and residents.

New Age liberalism, fulfilling its own prophecy, in turn described the highly visible street people as the castaways of Reaganism gone mad, people whom Snyder & Hombs called “surplus souls in a system firmly rooted in competition and self-interest.”

Whether in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza or in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park (both of which experienced rioting during eviction attempts), whether on sidewalks or in subway stations, derelicts had become political love objects, all the better to be seen, so as to shame passers-by whose apathy had supposedly allowed the situation to happen. (A.M. Rosenthal likened tolerating homelessness to being a silent witness to the Kitty Genovese murder.)

Here one comes to the heart of the matter. Homeless activists’ boilerplate was made possible by the integration of collective guilt into our political culture. By assigning blame for homelessness to nearly all housed, employed Americans, and by shoving the homeless into their full view, political activists transformed the homeless into “victims” of the pursuit of self-interest (i.e., Reaganism). Until collective guilt as an operational doctrine is defeated, “Reagan did it” will continue to serve as an explanation for homelessness regardless of the evidence that, in or out of the White House, Mr. Reagan is blameless.

At the time of this writing Mr. Horowitz is the Heritage Foundation’s housing and urban affairs policy analyst.


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