Mayors Seeking Solutions
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 22, 2022
Much of what is reported as public unhappiness with local officials results from a perceived rise in homelessness.
A survey of America’s mayors by the Menino Survey of Mayors found that 73% of mayors believe that voters hold them highly accountable for addressing homelessness, but only 19% think they have much control over the issue.
Indeed, many of the surveyed mayors say they know their constituents hold them accountable for homelessness, but don’t feel they have the tools or power to fix things, according to the survey results.
There is no official current federal governmental accounting for an increase in homelessness, but there is a general sense that the worst effects, boosted by unaddressed mental health problems, are on the rise. Axios reports that It’s hard to gauge whether homelessness has gotten better or worse during the pandemic.
HUD’s most recent national point-in-time census count was in January, 2020 — before the pandemic started and that last year, many big cities called off their census counts of homelessness, normally conducted in January.
Reportedly, there are more than a half-million homeless people nationally, according to social service agency reports. Men are far more likely to be homeless than women, chronically homeless individuals are said to be around 19 percent of the homeless population, and many homeless people are in families, says the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Nevertheless, there is a persistence of reports of crimes — a homeless guy pushing a woman off a subway platform into an ongoing train in New York City, a stabbing in San Francisco, innumerable, inexplicable street assaults — many of which have their roots in social mental problems as much as they do on other causes of personal violence.
In my own New York City neighborhood, the local police precinct reports that they increasingly are called to respond to relatively minor street behavior more than to more serious violence. The nearest precinct is running an experiment of deploying a limited number of mental health specialists on some street disturbance calls.
Nevertheless, it is the percentage rise year-to-year of serious violence that is grabbing the headlines, even if the mathematics of these reports are based on a pandemic year when even criminals stayed home. The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, was elected amid calls to deal with street crime. But generally, there is less attention to conditions that give rise to the crimes.
Politicians who talk about safe streets are more credible when they also talk about programs to address underlying social conditions, from housing to hunger to guns.
According to Axios, cities from Boston to Minneapolis are clearing out big homeless encampments, moves that typically stir backlash on all sides.
The survey said found that only 7% of mayors in the Northeast say that they have sufficient control over policies affecting homelessness. Mayors say they are hampered by lack of money to reduce homelessness, as well as by public opposition to new housing and shelters.
For a whole range of reasons, mayors see insufficient human and social services, lack of coordination among responsible agencies, and now the restart of evictions as contributing to the overall problem.
Difficult to Solve
While various Covid-related aid packages have helped keep homeless counts down, the problems are persistent and difficult to solve. Some cities, notably Sacramento, have re-cast central policies around the concept of providing cash subsidies to the homeless to get them into shelters and off the streets.
Because other social services are being reduced, mayors increasingly acknowledge that they are counting on police to handle the results. And that, police say, gives rise to overwhelming the police with all sorts of situations that can easily grow out of control for officers relatively untrained in dealing with mental health issues.
We wonder about all of this because we see the intense resistance in Washington to the big spending proposals from Joe Biden’s White House.
Affordable housing and various programs dedicated to aiding the homeless are among the Build Back Better proposals now stuck in political gridlock. While senators are adept, whether right or wrong, at debating the whopping numbers and the effects on macro-economic growth, they seem unable to pin the tail of solutions to what is driving voter frustrations.
The same senators who will rail against gun violence are the same senators who will not move to curb gun ownership. The same senators who decry urban streets increasingly littered with drug needles are against programs to distribute clean needles or to commit to funding social services for mental health and housing.
Still, Axios notes, there are billions of dollars in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act to combat homelessness and help people and families who are at risk. The question is whether they are being deployed in ways that reduce the problems.
Like most other things, the question is whether we want to complain or to work towards solving the problem. Slogans do nothing.