Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Gettin' Off the Streets

Guest Blogger

Alexander Tsesis

The homeless population has increased during this extended economic recession, but the concern for their plight remains inadequate given their level of destitution. Currently there are few vocational training programs designed to help the homeless get off and stay off the streets. What's more, no federal grants directly fund adult job and skills training programs.

Foreclosures and increased unemployment have exacerbated an already grave problem. In the United States, on any given night roughly 3 million people are homeless; although, their exact number is difficult to get at because it varies daily. Throughout the country the demand for homeless services has increased during the recession. In the Richmond, Virginia area, the number of homeless has increased by 7.2 percent in the past year, and emergency shelters are encountering a 26 percent
increase there. The homeless population in Dane County, Wisconsin increased by about 17 percent in 2007. The Supervisor for Marin County, California reports that the need for homeless services has grown by 26 percent in 2008. The Palm Beach County Florida homeless population over the last year rose by about 20 percent. A one night homeless study in South King County, Washington, conducted on January 30, 2009, showed a dramatic increase of 68 percent from the year before.

Among the people living in homelessness, 67.5% are single male and about 8.5% single female. Among those homeless people who are members of a household with children 65% are female and 35% male. Ethnically, 42% of the homeless are about black, 39% white, 13% Latino, 4% Native American, and 2% Asian. Roughly a quarter of the women who are homeless escaped from domestic violence.

These human tragedies continue to receive inadequate federal agency attention. Talk about helping the homeless usually centers on sheltering the population. That indeed is the immediate need, but it does not adequately get at the underlying problem. Many discussions of homelessness, including those on the Department of Health and Human Services's website, ignore how providing educational experiences for the homeless can positively affect their lives. The Department of Health and Human Services grant assistance programs emphasize the need for mental illness and addiction services.

This focus overlooks the critical need of education and training for the population. Moreover, it perpetuates the image of the homeless as being primarily a population with psychological disorders or drug problems. Mental illness and addiction disproportionately impacts that population, but there is a much larger segment of those who are chronically homeless because of the inadequacy of the minimum wage, high housing costs, family conflicts, and the inadequacy or lack of support networks.

As I have argued elsewhere, vocational training programs are essential for teaching marketable skills that will not only take people off the streets, but also keep them off of them. Currently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not even gather information about homeless educational levels through its Homeless Management Information System, which compiles congressionally mandated data collected at local shelter providers that receive federal funding.

The most recent collection of comprehensive educational data at the national level appears to be Martha Burt's study, Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, which twelve federal agencies funded under the auspices of the Interagency Council on the Homeless. While the information she and her team gathered is incredibly helpful, it is now over a decade old. These figures will obviously not reflect the previous two year increase in homelessness among children and families. However, it is probably still indicative of the chronically homeless population.
In 1996, fifty-three percent of homeless people with families and thirty-seven percent of single homeless clients had not completed high school. In comparison, twenty-five percent of United States adults had less than a high school education. Approximately twenty-one percent of homeless clients completed high school or passed a high school equivalency examination (i.e. General Education Diploma or G.E.D.) and
another twenty-seven percent obtained some education above high school level. Thirty percent of the adult population in the United States completed no more than high school or received a G.E.D., and about forty-five percent more attained some education beyond high school.

Homeless people's job opportunities and potential to permanently get off the streets would be significantly improved by a well designed vocational training program. While the program should be funded by HUD or the Department of Labor, local and state organizations can administer it through programs designed for the particular needs of the communities they serve. Vocational courses should aid homeless persons who (1) are unemployed or temporarily employed but not receiving enough pay to meet rental needs; (2) need training or retraining to learn marketable
skills; and (3) meet program qualifications, which should include level of education and period of homelessness. To be most effective the programs should provide childcare during educational hours, room and board, books, and clothing. The programs can run for a set period of time, and each person who completes the course should be given job placement assistance.

The federal government's mandate to fund these programs is twofold. The most obvious source of authorization for funding homeless programs is the Spending Clause of the United States Constitution. However, the neutrality of the spending provision makes an alternative more attractive for this civil rights initiative. In her chapter to The Constitution in 2020, Robin West establishes an explanation in which the Equal Protection Clause is relevant to the protection of economics rights. Her central point is that the Fourteenth Amendment allows Congress to take positive steps for protecting the equal protection of socially beneficial law, not only equal protection from discriminatory law.

Extrapolating her approach to my vocational training proposal would imply that the right to have basic subsistence is connected to life and liberty. The federal government has an obligation under social contract theory to provide persons in economic destitution the educational tools to escape poverty. Even the most restrictive meaning of equality should include some basic subsistence level that is adequate for earning a salary sufficient enough to rent a room or apartment.
Allowing presently homeless persons to use their skills and talent will increase American productivity and democratic participation, thereby augmenting the general welfare of society by helping its most needy members. A federally funded vocational training program for the homeless will protect basic rights and add to their ability to be productive members of society.

Older Posts
Newer Posts