Commentary Magazine


A Nation in Denial, by Alice S. Baum and Donald W. Burnes

Beyond Housing

A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness.
by Alice S. Baum and Donald W. Burnes.
Westview. 247 pp. $52.50; $16.95 (paper).

In January 1993, Doll Johnson, an eighty-year-old resident of the South Bronx, was bludgeoned to death by Christopher Battiste, a thirty-three-year-old homeless man staying at a nearby shelter. Predictably, it turned out that Battiste was a mentally-ill drug abuser who had been in and out of psychiatric emergency rooms and prisons but had never received any long-term care for his afflictions.

This event, and similarly tragic ones that have occurred in New York City and elsewhere over the last decade, are extreme manifestations of what those who live near shelters and other residences for the homeless have known and have been saying for years: that many are mentally ill, or substance abusers, or both, and that shelters serve as focal points for crime, violence, drug use, and other offensive and ultimately dangerous behavior.

To put it another way, the homeless suffer from problems that housing alone will not solve. So who are they, really? And what can be done to help them? These are the kinds of questions that are grappled with in A Nation in Denial. Alice Baum and Donald Burnes, both of whom have had first-hand experience in Washington, D.C., have written a book which, though at times repetitive, dispels many contemporary myths surrounding homelessness, and especially the central one: that the homeless are simply regular people without homes.

Rather the contrary is true, as Baum and Burnes demonstrate. In fact, according to sources cited by the authors, “between 65 and 85 percent of the homeless population suffer from serious chronic alcoholism, addiction to drugs, severe chronic psychiatric disorders, or some combination of the three.” They are also likely to have been in prison or, as children, in foster care, and to be chronically unemployed. Most characteristically, they lack any connection to family or other community institutions. Their problems are more severe, and they are more dysfunctional, than even the poorest people who have homes. Because of this, the authors contend, most of the homeless need something other than or more than just a roof. They require long-term intensive treatment.

Anyone who doubts this assessment should visit a homeless shelter. All too often, shelters provide residents with little or no help for their real problems. Drug dealing and drug use are rampant and open, and so too is the criminal behavior associated with drugs—prostitution, theft, assault, and occasionally murder. When the homeless move to permanent housing, they usually take these habits with them.

In New York City, for example, a number of programs that provide permanent housing to homeless families had to be scaled back or eliminated because the results were so disheartening. One program, which rehabilitated vacant buildings and then filled them with homeless families previously living in shelters or hotels, was abandoned within a couple of years because the buildings, now occupied by young female-headed households, were quickly overwhelmed by drugs, vandalism, and crime.

Baum and Burnes also refute a number of the ancillary myths that have served in recent years to obscure the true pathology of the homeless. For instance, while it is true that there are more homeless today than 30 years ago, the reason is not primarily economic (as advocates of the homeless would have it) but largely demographic. The authors calculate that, because of the baby boom, there are up to 500,000 more schizophrenics today than there were 20 years ago—yet in the last 40 years state beds for the mentally ill have been cut by 80 percent, from a high of about 552,000 in 1955 to about 100,000 today. Many of the severely ill, who in the past would have been sent to in-patient facilities, have no place to go. (Community residences meant to replace large institutions do exist, but only in very small numbers.)

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While Baum and Burnes do an excellent job of defining and characterizing the homeless, their book is weaker when it comes to solutions. Thus, they call for programs to evaluate and address the diverse needs of the homeless population; but ideas for new programs have never been in short supply, and in fact there are successful programs, albeit on a very small scale, at work in many cities. The problem lies elsewhere.

Throughout their book, Baum and Burnes argue that, out of compassion and a desire not to “blame the victim,” we as a nation have been inhibited from identifying or acknowledging the problems of the homeless for what they really are. This may once have been true; but most people today, like those living near the shelter that housed Christopher Battiste, are well aware of the severity of the problems facing the homeless. While at one time they may have been ready to help out, they have by now lost faith in the ability or the willingness of government either to do much for the homeless or to protect those in their vicinity.

The failure of social-service agencies and government to respond to legitimate concerns and fears of communities has created an atmosphere of anger and distrust that has hardened into active resistance. Communities that once welcomed, or at least did not oppose, homeless shelters have grown disillusioned as the advocates who fought for these shelters and the governments that have funded them refuse to take any responsibility for the crime, drugs, and filth they bring into neighboring streets.

This is where we stand now. Those who created and have perpetuated the myth of the homeless as regular folks are, finally, beginning to acknowledge that the old way of dealing with them—simply providing them with a roof—has been a catastrophic failure. And there does seem to be an emerging consensus that we need, as Baum and Burnes argue, to treat underlying problems. Finally, as noted above, good models already exist for how to begin going about the task. The real trick will be to convince a properly jaded and properly disgusted citizenry that the new programs will really be different from the old, and that the investment will pay off.

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