Commentary Magazine


The Homeless, by Christopher Jencks

Gimme Shelter

The Homeless.
by Christopher Jencks.
Harvard University Press. 161 pp. $17.95.

An odd paradox marks America’s recent experience with homelessness during the 1980′s: even as the nation’s unemployment rate was cut in half, the number of homeless people on our streets continued to rise. The well-known sociologist Christopher Jencks takes this puzzle as his starting point in The Homeless, a meticulous piece of detective work framed by three fundamental questions: How much did homelessness rise during the 1980′s? Why did it increase? And what should we do about it?

The value of the answers in this slim yet dense volume does not lie in their novelty. Many readers will surely be unsurprised by the large role Jencks assigns to mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and the decline of single-room-occupancy hotels. Nevertheless, the discomfiting tale bears retelling, particularly in light of the Clinton administration’s vow to reduce the number of homeless Americans by one-third before the end of the President’s first term. For anyone wondering whether the pledge might be ill-considered, Jencks serves as a reliable, hard-headed guide through a thicket of studies and competing theories, all the while expertly demonstrating what social science can do to give us insight into a social problem.

Jencks’s social science, it should be noted, leans toward the quantitative variety. Indeed, he has already been attacked in the New Republic for allegedly ignoring the human face of the homeless. But while Jencks—himself a onetime reporter—writes admiringly of Elliott Liebow and other ethnographers of homelessness, his avowed goal is not to tell stories about individuals. He aims instead to describe the patterns behind the disturbing sights Americans see daily on their streets.

_____________

 

Whom should we count when we try to count the homeless? Few questions about statistics have generated such intense debate. Many activists, for example, want to expand the count by including individuals living doubled up in the homes of family members or friends. Some of these people may indeed be in dire straits, moving back and forth among the streets, shelters, and the homes where they are occasionally taken in. Many others, however, have far more innocuous reasons for sharing housing. Jencks settles on a common-sense definition that counts people sleeping on the streets and in shelters (including welfare hotels) but excludes those who have doubled up. His tartly declared purpose is to focus on “what we might call the ‘visible homeless’—people whose presence on the streets upsets the more prosperous classes.”

How many of these people are there? Jencks dispenses quickly with the late Mitch Snyder’s claim that two to three million Americans were homeless during the 1980′s. That figure was uncritically repeated throughout the decade by journalists and politicians, despite Snyder’s candid acknowledgment that it was based on the most casual of inquiries and had “no meaning.” Instead, Jencks offers an “educated guess” using a variety of existing surveys supplemented by his own calculations.

The homeless population, he finds, is much lower than advocates have claimed, but it did grow dramatically during the 1980′s, increasing from a 125,000 weekly average in 1980 to about 400,000 in 1987-88, with a small decline toward the end of the decade.

Jencks has a healthy understanding of how even sound numbers can become ideological fodder for policy advocates:

Suppose a shelter has 40 beds that are always full. Ten are filled by a succession of individuals who remain homeless for exactly a week. Thirty are filled by people who remain homeless for a year. Over the course of a year, 520 people will enter the shelter and stay for a week while 30 enter and stay for a year. The shelter can now describe its clientele in two very different ways. If it wants to make its clients sound “normal,” it can say that 95 percent of those who enter the shelter return to conventional housing within a week. If it wants to argue that its clients need all kinds of social services, it can say that 75 percent of its resources are devoted to people who remain homeless for a year.

Manipulating the homeless count for political ends is thus an easy game. A one-time tally will necessarily include some who are newly arrived on the street, some on the verge of better things, and some who are perennially down and out. Lumping together those moving in and out of homelessness over the course of several years produces big numbers: the Clinton administration reported recently that seven million Americans were homeless at some point between 1985 and 1990.

_____________

 

But however the numbers are spun, there is ample evidence that the homeless are far from normal, if by normal we mean representative of society at large. A 1987 study by Martha Burt of the Urban Institute found that about three-quarters of the urban homeless were single; families with children made up just 18 percent of the total. Among homeless adults, 84 percent were male, 45 percent were black, and 10 percent were Hispanic. Half had never married and 97 percent of those using shelters or soup kitchens were not currently with a spouse. Forty-one percent had spent time in jail.

The homeless are different in other ways, too. Perhaps the saddest story Jencks tells is that of the homeless mentally ill. Twenty-two percent of the adults in Burt’s survey had spent time in a mental hospital. Jencks counts himself among those “sidewalk sociologists” who had initially assumed that an even greater percentage of bag ladies and panhandlers were once mental patients; but many now on the streets, he observes, while not literally deinstitutionalized, would have been put in mental institutions at a time when different rules prevailed.

Indeed, although deinstitutionalization is not new, the true disaster, Jencks argues, only struck after the mid-1970′s, when would-be civil libertarians sharply curtailed involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. That change—combined with ill-advised government efforts to save money by discharging as many mental patients as possible, even when those patients had nowhere else to go—left many crazy and dangerous people in our midst. (“America has always been a land of second chances,” Jencks notes with grim irony. “Violent psychotics now get a second chance just like everyone else.”)

_____________

 

Jencks observes that many discussions of homelessness are really arguments over who is to blame for the problem. On this question he is intent on steering a middle course, acknowledging the role of personal responsibility without letting society off too easily. Throughout this book, he uses formulations along the lines of: liberals say x, conservatives say y; both are half-right. This splitting-the-difference approach is not always convincing, as when Jencks writes that sellers and users are not the only ones responsible for substance abuse, since such abuse is “an integral part of our culture.” But in general he is at once persuasive and even-handed.

Thus, he is quick to dismiss the claim from the Left that Ronald Reagan worsened homelessness by cutting housing subsidies (which actually grew during the 1980′s), but he is also unconvinced by William Tucker’s argument from the Right that rent control contributes to homelessness. A far more decisive factor, in his view, is the decline of single-room-occupancy hotels, which provided an often sordid but dirt-cheap housing option for the down and out. These skid-row hotels have largely fallen victim to a combination of reformist city-planning codes and neighborhood Nimbyism.

What about the puzzling rise in homelessness that occurred during the economic recovery of the 1980′s? Along with the factors discussed above, he believes the arrival of crack cocaine played a role and that long-term joblessness contributed to homelessness among single men. He also believes that the rise of single motherhood and the declining purchasing power of welfare benefits help explain family homelessness. Here Jencks finds only partial answers, some of which have little to do with the economy per se. And he even gives sympathetic consideration to the theory that homelessness grew in the 1980′s because a larger number of more attractive shelters became available, perhaps lowering the resistance of some to becoming homeless and easing the way for others to throw troublesome relatives out of their house.

_____________

 

In a short section at the end of this largely descriptive work, Jencks offers several ideas for tackling homelessness under the modest heading, “Some Partial Solutions.” While he has no qualms about government involvement in the enterprise, his approach is refreshingly incremental.

He would expand rent subsidies to help single mothers and their children, for example, but he realizes there is little possibility that Congress will soon increase an already massive low-income-housing budget to do so. As an alternative, Jencks proposes spreading existing rent subsidies more evenly, so as to help larger numbers of people. He would also increase Supplemental Security Income benefits for the unemployable mentally ill, but would attach more strings in order to ensure that money intended for rent was not used for drugs or other destructive purposes.

In other cases, Jencks would like the government to undo some things it has done that have exacerbated homelessness. He believes housing codes should be scaled back to a “bare minimum” to allow new cubicle hotels to be built. And, where necessary, he would revive involuntary commitment—a crucial reform that is under increasingly serious discussion.

He also sketches a plan to create publicly organized day-labor centers for those single adults who are able to work. These would offer to any willing worker enough casual labor to earn vouchers for meals and a night in a cubicle hotel. This idea could be both problematic to implement and expensive, but it has great moral appeal. Jencks’s aim here is to create a social contract involving reciprocal obligation between the state and its most troubled citizens. “Few Americans believe their society has an obligation to feed and house everyone, regardless of how they behave,” he writes. “But most of us do feel an obligation to help people who either cannot help themselves or are trying to do so and simply need an opportunity.”

As the title of his concluding chapter suggests, Jencks has no illusions that his wish-list would fix all of what ails the homeless—particularly their substance-abuse and psychological problems. At heart he remains more a social scientist than a crusader for social reform, and he is candid about the limitations of efforts to treat society’s ills. Still, Jencks believes there are steps that can be taken, though these will demand realistic expectations and the intelligent restraint needed to sidestep ill-conceived remedies which “create both perverse incentives and egregious inequities.” Only thus can we reconcile—as Jencks says we must—the competing “claims of compassion and prudence.”

r Jencks takes this puzzle as his start- ing point in The Homeless, a me- ticulous piece of detective work framed by three fundamental ques- tions: How much did homelessness rise during the 1980′s? Why did it increase? And what should we do about it? The value of the answers in this slim yet dense volume does not lie in their novelty. Many readers will surely be unsurprised by the large role Jencks assigns to mental ill- ness, drug and alcohol abuse, and the decline of single-room-occu- pancy hotels. Nevertheless, the discomfiting tale bears retelling, particularly in light of the Clinton administration’s vow to reduce the number of homeless Americans by one-third before the end of the President’s first term. For anyone wondering whether the pledge might be ill-considered, Jencks serves as a reliable, hard-headed guide through a thicket of studies and competing theories, all the while expertly demonstrating what social science can do to give us in- sight into a social problem.

Jencks’s social science, it should be noted, leans toward the quanti- tative variety. Indeed, he has al- ready been attacked in the New Republic for allegedly ignoring the human face of the homeless. But while Jencks-himself a onetime reporter-writes admiringly of El- liott Liebow and other ethnogra- phers of homelessness, his avowed goal is not to tell stories about in- dividuals. He aims instead to de- scribe the patterns behind the dis- turbing sights Americans see daily on their streets.

WHOM should we count when we try to count the homeless? Few questions about statistics have gen- erated such intense debate. Many activists, for example, want to ex- pand the count by including indi- viduals living doubled up in the homes of family members or friends. Some of these people may indeed be in dire straits, moving back and forth among the streets, shelters, and the homes where they are occasionally taken in. Many others, however, have far more in- nocuous reasons for sharing hous- ing. Jencks settles on a common- sense definition that counts peo- ple sleeping on the streets and in shelters (including welfare hotels) but excludes those who have dou- bled up. His tartly declared pur- pose is to focus on "what we might call the ‘visible homeless’-people whose presence on the streets up- sets the more prosperous classes." How many of these people are there? Jencks dispenses quickly with the late Mitch Snyder’s claim that two to three million Ameri- cans were homeless during the 1980′s. That figure was uncritically repeated throughout the decade by journalists and politicians, de- spite Snyder’s candid acknowledg- ment that it was based on the most casual of inquiries and had "no meaning." Instead,Jencks offers an "educated guess" using a variety of existing surveys supplemented by his own calculations.

The homeless population, he finds, is much lower than advo- cates have claimed, but it did grow dramatically during the 1980′s, in- creasing from a 125,000 weekly av- erage in 1980 to about 400,000 in 1987-88, with a small decline to- ward the end of the decade.

Jencks has a healthy understand- ing of how even sound numbers can become ideological fodder for policy advocates: Suppose a shelter has 40 beds that are always full. Ten are filled by a succession of indi- viduals who remain homeless for exactly a week. Thirty are filled by people who remain homeless for a year. Over the course of a year, 520 people will BEN WILDAVSKY, a new contributor, is a reporter covering higher education for the San Francisco Chronicle.BOOKS IN REVIEW/63 enter the shelter and stay for a week while 30 enter and stay for a year. The shelter can now de- scribe its clientele in two very different ways. If it wants to make its clients sound "normal," it can say that 95 percent of those who enter the shelter re- turn to conventional housing within a week. If it wants to ar- gue that its clients need all kinds of social services, it can say that 75 percent of its resources are devoted to people who remain homeless for a year.

Manipulating the homeless count for political ends is thus an easy game. A one-time tally will ne- cessarily include some who are newly arrived on the street, some on the verge of better things, and some who are perennially down and out. Lumping together those moving in and out of homelessness over the course of several years produces big numbers: the Clinton administration reported recently that seven million Americans were homeless at some point between 1985 and 1990.

BUT however the numbers are spun, there is ample evidence that the homeless are far from normal, if by normal we mean representa- tive of society at large. A 1987 study by Martha Burt of the Urban Insti- tute found that about three-quar- ters of the urban homeless were single; families with children made up just 18 percent of the total.

Among homeless adults, 84 per- cent were male, 45 percent were black, and 10 percent were His- panic. Half had never married and 97 percent of those using shelters or soup kitchens were not cur- rently with a spouse. Forty-one per- cent had spent time in jail.

The homeless are different in other ways, too. Perhaps the sad- dest storyJencks tells is that of the homeless mentally ill. Twenty-two percent of the adults in Burt’s sur- vey had spent time in a mental hospital. Jencks counts himself among those "sidewalk sociolo- gists" who had initially assumed that an even greater percentage of bag ladies and panhandlers were once mental patients; but many now on the streets, he observes, while not literally deinstitution- alized, would have been put in mental institutions at a time when different rules prevailed.

Indeed, although deinstitution- alization is not new, the true disas- ter, Jencks argues, only struck after the mid-1970′s, when would-be civil libertarians sharply curtailed involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. That change-com- bined with ill-advised government efforts to save money by discharg- ing as many mental patients as pos- sible, even when those patients had nowhere else to go-left many crazy and dangerous people in our midst. ("America has always been a land of second chances," Jencks notes with grim irony. "Violent psychotics now get a second chance just like everyone else.") JENCKS observes that many discus- sions of homelessness are really arguments over who is to blame for the problem. On this question he is intent on steering a middle course, acknowledging the role of personal responsibility without let- ting society off too easily. Through- out this book, he uses formulations along the lines of: liberals say x, conservatives say y; both are half- right. This splitting-the-difference approach is not always convincing, as when Jencks writes that sellers and users are not the only ones re- sponsible for substance abuse, since such abuse is "an integral part of our culture." But in general he is at once persuasive and even- handed.

Thus, he is quick to dismiss the claim from the Left that Ronald Reagan worsened homelessness by cutting housing subsidies (which actually grew during the 1980′s), but he is also unconvinced by Wil- liam Tucker’s argument from the Right that rent control contributes to homelessness. A far more deci- sive factor, in his view, is the de- cline of single-room-occupancy hotels, which provided an often sordid but dirt-cheap housing op- tion for the down and out. These skid-row hotels have largely fallen victim to a combination of reform- ist city-planning codes and neigh- borhood Nimbyism.

What about the puzzling rise in64 / COMMENTARY SEPTEMBER 1994 homelessness that occurred during the economic recovery of the 1980′s? Along with the factors dis- cussed above, he believes the ar- rival of crack cocaine played a role and that long-term joblessness con- tributed to homelessness among single men. He also believes that the rise of single motherhood and the declining purchasing power of welfare benefits help explain fam- ily homelessness. Here Jencks finds only partial answers, some of which have little to do with the economy per se. And he even gives sympathetic consideration to the theory that homelessness grew in the 1980′s because a larger num- ber of more attractive shelters be- came available, perhaps lowering the resistance of some to becom- ing homeless and easing the way for others to throw troublesome relatives out of their house.

IN A short section at the end of this largely descriptive work, Jencks of- fers several ideas for tackling homelessness under the modest heading, "Some Partial Solutions." While he has no qualms about gov- ernment involvement in the enter- prise, his approach is refreshingly incremental.

He would expand rent subsidies to help single mothers and their children, for example, but he real- izes there is little possibility that Congress will soon increase an al- ready massive low-income-housing budget to do so. As an alternative, Jencks proposes spreading existing rent subsidies more evenly, so as to help larger numbers of people. He would also increase Supplemental Security Income benefits for the unemployable mentally ill, but would attach more strings in order to ensure that money intended for rent was not used for drugs or other destructive purposes.

In other cases,Jencks would like the government to undo some things it has done that have exac- erbated homelessness. He believes housing codes should be scaled back to a "bare minimum" to allow new cubicle hotels to be built. And, where necessary, he would revive involuntary commitment-a cru- cial reform that is under increas- ingly serious discussion.

He also sketches a plan to cre- ate publicly organized day-labor centers for those single adults who are able to work. These would of- fer to any willing worker enough casual labor to earn vouchers for meals and a night in a cubicle ho- tel. This idea could be both prob- lematic to implement and expen- sive, but it has great moral appeal.

Jencks’s aim here is to create a so- cial contract involving reciprocal obligation between the state and its most troubled citizens. "Few Americans believe their society has an obligation to feed and house everyone, regardless of how they behave," he writes. "But most of us do feel an obligation to help people who either cannot help themselves or are trying to do so and simply need an opportunity." As the title of his concluding chapter suggests, Jencks has no il- lusions that his wish-list would fix all of what ails the homeless-par- ticularly their substance-abuse and psychological problems. At heart he remains more a social scientist than a crusader for social reform, and he is candid about the limita- tions of efforts to treat society’s ills. Still,Jencks believes there are steps that can be taken, though these will demand realistic expectations and the intelligent restraint need- ed to sidestep ill-conceived rem- edies which "create both perverse incentives and egregious inequi- ties." Only thus can we reconcile- as Jencks says we must-the com- peting "claims of compassion and prudence."

 

About the Author

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.




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