Illusions and Realities: The Republicans and the Homeless

On television overseas, hundreds of millions see aimless, V passive homeless persons in the cities of the United States. This shocking scene is shown over and over again. How can this happen in the glittering media world of “Emmy” and “Oscar” awards? How can it happen on streets surrounding the White House? These images deeply disturb our friends.

I have tried all sorts of excuses to myself. None of them work. The sheer fact of the homeless is still there. It cannot be hidden. It does not go away.

The Reagan Administration and the Republican Party have a marvelous opportunity. Their most basic unfinished business is to seize the initiative for the next generation in how to address social problems. The historic Republican weakness was for two generations to have allowed the Democrats to be the party of social invention. Even when Democratic programs didn’t work as advertised, the Democrats won affection for showing that somebody cared. Now, when “caring” and “compassion” have come to be heard as synonyms for carelessness and mere posturing, still, the reality of caring and compassion are necessary to any good society. Republicans must now take the lead.

I do not fault the people of the United States. During the twenty years 1965-1985, the American people through their elected officials have spent trillions of dollars in social welfare spending, intending to lift up the poor. One may question whether these huge amounts have been wisely spent, or even whether they have done harm. What one can­not question is the generosity of the American people.

The fault does not lie in the generosity of the American people. It lies in the quality of the social thinking of our elites. The tendency of our elites (myself included) is to believe that money plus liberty will solve the problem. All we have to do, we think, is put money in places of need, and all will be well.

The missing link is culture. Even given money, the culture of some significant percentage of the American peo­ple is such that millions use their own resources poorly. Some destroy housing stock and furniture. Some destroy themselves.

Who, for example, are the homeless? Many are psychologically disturbed. A vast majority seems unemployable. Twenty years ago, such persons would have been given care in publicly supported mental health institu­tions. Then “reform” took hold, and hundreds of thousands were “deinstitutionalized.” They were, in effect, thrown out into the streets, with no way of taking care of themselves. Such persons, experts say now constitute more than half the homeless.

President Reagan should take the problem of homelessness as his own. Nothing would more swiftly alter the way in which his social vision for the future is regarded by his fellow citizens. Politically, the problem is a potent one to tackle because it is solvable, the effects of solving it would be highly visible, and the numbers of the homeless — while uncertain — are certainly not very large. One may not be able to eliminate poverty, but one can enormously diminish homelessness.

If the homeless were mentally and psychologically able to care for themselves, it would not cost each of them much to find shelter. But many of the homeless do not receive the food stamps, the medical services, and other benefits to which the law entitles them. Many are incapable of seeking and harboring available resources, incapable of seeing to their own needs.

We do not encounter in the homeless, then, a fully free population, capable of acting deliberately on their own behalf. Many are incredibly vulnerable. In such cir­cumstances, it is not only a right, it is a duty, for other per­sons in society to come to their assistance.

While anything that smacks of coercion would be abhorrent, it is not abhorrent for a civil law based upon con­ceptions of personal responsibility to make provision for those who demonstrate an incapacity for taking care of themselves.

Cannot our bar associations and other appropriate agencies review our current laws about vagrancy and the use of public places? And also about assignment to caring in­stitutions of those ill persons demonstrably incapable of self- care?

Cannot the American Medical Association and mental health professionals review their own efforts to reach this exquisitely needy and highly visible part of the population?

The government, qua government, has clear and ob­vious responsibilities for those of the needy who seek its assistance. To force its attentions upon those who resist its ministrations is much more problematic. Nonetheless, public order does impose responsibilities upon government. It is wrong for citizens to use the public streets as a sleeping place, as refuge for intimate and personal needs, as shifting locations of settlement. Their private needs demand ap­propriate shelter.

The nation needs laws regarding homelessness. Homeless persons need medical check-ups and referrals. Where mentally ill persons cannot take care of themselves, they need to be assigned to the care of others. Sources of assistance need to be organized across the land. System needs to be put in place of the current anarchy.

While local authorities must necessarily have respon­sibility for local methods, the interests of the national government are obviously involved, given the extreme mobility of this nation’s population, including its poor and homeless.

What can the national government do? The president is the tribune of all the people, particularly the needy. Let the president energize the legal and medical professionals of the land. Let him energize the churches and local elites everywhere. Let him call upon the Junior Chambers of com­merce, the Lions Club, the Elks, the Rotarians, and all ser­vice organizations. Let him speak of the values of family, shelter, order, public morality, and public generosity. Let him focus national concern.

The international reputation of the United States is at stake. So is fidelity to our own ideals. So is our standing before the Almighty.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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