Another Stupid Idea

Well, winter is here again. With it comes the annual homeless census, where people go around at night and look for people on the street and in shelters, add it all up, and tell us how many homeless people are in Massachusetts. I’ve always been skeptical of it, because the count is organized by advocates, but mostly volunteers who are not advocates take the head count, so I’ve always believed that the count is largely inaccurate.

For example, during the count in Boston, many of the volunteers are told not to go in alleys or on rooftops. They only count who they see. I know it’s for safety reasons. But how can you claim to have an accurate count if the places that homeless people are likely to be are off limits? On top of that, there are homeless people you will never find that are never counted. I’m talking about those that stay with family or friends and sleep on couches or floors or whatever is available, instead of going through the sometimes crazy, cold, compassionless shelter system. It’s really like that, trust me. But those that choose to go that route do not qualify for services that the homeless get, even though they are homeless. They are considered safe, warm and dry – therefore, they’re not a priority.

Now, they and the homeless on the street have more to worry about. New state laws around homelessness were to be finalized this month. These laws not only will affect homeless people deeply, but they could also cost some people their lives.

The new conditions for emergency shelter are as follows: if you become homeless through natural causes, are evicted through no fault of your own, are a victim of domestic violence, or if you and your children are living in unsafe conditions, then you are eligible for assistance. If you do not fall under any of these guidelines, tough luck. So what does this mean? It means that if substance abuse is the reason why you are homeless, you will get no help. If the reason you are homeless is because you are mentally ill, you will get no help. If you are homeless for any reason that was not stated above, again – tough luck.

First of all, what idiot on Beacon Hill came up with this stupid idea? Do they realize that these new guidelines will sentence people to the street? They are literally turning their backs on those who can’t or won’t help themselves, for whatever reason. And what about families? What if a mother and child were evicted because of some reason other than these guidelines? It happens. Would the mother qualify for emergency shelter? Or would she have to find an abandoned car somewhere? What about a grandparent who has a substance abuse problem but also a serious medical problem? What happens to them? What about a homeless veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and can’t handle life, who takes to the street because of his disease? Do you let someone who served this country get the help they need, or does the state hope that those people will just die off? I know that’s ridiculous, but what else are we who work with the homeless supposed to think?

I know someone will try to explain this concept to me, but I don’t want to hear it, because this concept is ugly on so many levels. It says that those who are homeless and can’t tie their shoes because they are either drunk or because they hear too many voices in their head, don’t deserve emergency shelter.

I know better than almost anyone that not everyone who is homeless has substance abuse or mental health issues. But they’re out there, and we’re supposed to turn our backs on them, as well as the hidden homeless that I mentioned before. Under these guidelines, they do not qualify for homeless services because they are not considered deserving enough by the state. As for why the state is doing this, Governor Patrick said on a radio show that these new guidelines are meant to help people before they become homeless. Well, Governor, while I’m glad to hear that we are finally moving toward homeless prevention, it doesn’t mean that we should give up on those that already are. Whatever happened to the Five Year Plan to end homelessness? Its main focus was the chronically homeless, those same folks that the state now seems to want to abandon. Did they finally figure out how tough it was, and their answer, rather than to keep at it, was to give up on them? It sure seems like it. These new guidelines will doubtlessly make things even harder for the homeless. What will it take for the state to step it up when it comes to homelessness? Do we have to wait for a family to freeze to death in an abandoned car? Sadly, folks, it may come to that.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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