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Memories of the 28th Century

Getting Them Off the Streets

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Comments about homelessness in the U.S.A.

Here in Amherst, Massachusetts the issue of homelessness has become a major thing recently because of some rather unpleasant people who seem to like to stay in public view. There have been homeless people here for decades, or longer, but that is true of all college towns. In the past, most of the homeless people had the good sense to be polite and keep a low profile, and those who were not polite usually were rather clearly mentally ill. For decades there have been people camping in outlying areas, but some people seem to prefer being closer to town. Rather than being counter-cultural, the present crop includes a higher proportion of drunks and such, but there are reasons for that. But first we need a little background, because the situation didn’t develop quickly. It took decades for all of the chickens to roost.

From colonial times until after World War II public welfare, housing, education, and other social programs were principally the responsibilities of the cities and towns of Massachusetts. While there were general laws that set forth general requirements, the actual execution was up to the city or town, and programs did vary. Generally, there was a town farm, and there were cash subsidies to people who were needy but had their own houses. Eligibility regulations were statewide, but they were applied as the overseers of the poor (as the administrators were known) determined and subject to the amount appropriated by the town meeting. The town farms were exactly that, farms, and they raised food for the residents. The residents of the town farm were people who would otherwise have been homeless, and they often were of low intelligence or great age or had physical problems, but the residents weren’t drunks, because drunks were banned from the town farms; the term “worthy poor” was often used in describing who was eligible for benefits. That system creaked along until the state took over social welfare programs, because there were too many complaints of abusive activity, favoritism, larceny, etc. So in the early 1960’s the state took over, and the town farms were phased out. The phase out took several years, while other housing was found and the subsidy system was developed. In the course of the takeover state officials (in the normal style) assured everyone involved that “everyone will be taken care of.” The economy was good then, so there weren’t many problems; even drunks could find jobs. Also during the 1950’s calls for reform of or elimination of the state mental hospitals had begun.

Especially after WW II there were people who called for the end of mental hospitals, both in this country and in Europe; see for how the closings started in this country. There were similar pressures in Europe with a number of people agitating for reform. With pushes from inside the industry and from influential writers opinion went against retaining mental hospitals. Here in Massachusetts there still is the secure unit of the Bridgewater State Hospital which is under the department of corrections, but the rest of the system appears to have been closed (there may be a facility that is still open, but I couldn’t find it). The first large scale releases of mental patients and closings of hospitals here in Massachusetts took place in the early 1970’s, and the people were assured that "everyone will be taken care of; they will go to 'community facilities'; no one will be put on the streets." Within a few months of those releases there was a large increase on the numbers of people living on the streets of cities in Massachusetts. Mental illness is still one of the main reasons for homelessness in Massachusetts, especially if one includes alcoholism and mental retardation as mental illnesses. The executive director of the local homeless shelter (Rebekah Wilder) has stated more than 60% of the people who went through her shelter as having mental health problems, but I don’t know the details of that item.

By some time in the 1990's the mental hospitals had been mostly emptied, and the state schools for the mentally retarded had also been closed. While the closings of the town farms happened during relatively good economic times, the manufacturing base of Massachusetts has been shrinking for decades, and it wasn't easy to find work, so some of the long term unemployed were joining the drunks and mentally ill on the streets. College towns, such as Amherst, have long traditions of people drifting in and out of town and being homeless while they are here. I don't know if that was always the case, but as far back as I can remember there have been at least a few dozen such people in town; although most of them moved on after a few months or years. For the last few decades some of them made livings in a variety of temporary and low pay jobs or selling drugs or as artists or buskers, and there wasn't much demand for housing assistance, because they could band together and find a cheap rental. As time passed housing regulations tightened and rents rose, so those cheap rentals became harder to find, and the problems of homeless families and the long term unemployed were becoming more significant. Politicians may be touting the job numbers these days, but the participation in the labor force has dropped substantially even while the total number employed has risen, which indicates that not enough jobs have been created to handle the increases in the population, so there have been more long term unemployed people.

Not much has changed since then as far as general demographic trends go, but opiates became more common. In 2011 a seasonal homeless shelter was opened, so some people who would have gone elsewhere for the Winter stayed in Amherst. The shelter was “wet”, allowing drunks and people obviously under the influence of any drug to stay. Having a wet shelter is unusual. As far back as anyone has records for public funds have not been used for drunks except for rehab. But that wasn’t a real problem, because the shelter was for Amherst people for the first two years. Then the people who ran it started advertising their services all around the region, and people from Hartford, Providence, Worcester, etc. started showing up. For the first couple of years the shelter had been relatively peaceful and easy on people who were not drunks or druggies, but it became less amenable with the addition of people who were not familiar with the area.

Recent problems that have been ascribed to homeless people were caused by disorderly people who may or may not be homeless, people who are lacking in manners. Most of the local homeless people are quiet and keep out of trouble, because they have connections to the area, and people who have some connection with a place are less likely to be disrespectful toward that place and its inhabitants. It is thought that there are about three or four dozen homeless in Amherst, but the disorderly ones amount to fewer than a dozen.

The ultimate solution for the problem is to get the state to make good on the promises that were made years ago and have the state provide housing for the homeless as a replacement for the town farm. We should also try to get the state to reconsider deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. Rebuilding the large state hospitals would not be a good idea, but smaller institutions scattered around the state that would house a few hundred people probably would be advantageous for everyone involved.

Any temporary homeless shelter is a stopgap measure, at best, and enabling drunks is contrary to the best interests of the town and the drunks, and it is contrary to good sense, so any shelter should be dry. We might regard a shelter as a partial replacement for the town farm and expect it to house people who are temporarily unable to house themselves for economic reasons, or who are physically or mentally unable to house themselves.

When the state took over administration of public welfare programs, the responsibility for housing the homeless was one of those responsibilities, and we should expect the state to fulfill that.

Eliminating the other causes of homelessness are less likely, because the causes are further removed from the town’s purview, but legalizing opiates would make it possible for someone to be a heroin addict and hold a regular job, if there were jobs available. Alas, the feds are convinced that having some more jobs but a substantially lower labor market participation rate is wonderful, so there would be little help in job creation from that source. But the state could encourage job creation by reducing the barriers for a new business, and the town could also ease some of the barriers to entering the commercial arena.

The matter of institutionalization of the mentally ill is still controversial, but there are people who would be better off if they were housed and cared for in some sort of organized institution. Didn’t someone say that a society can be judged by how it treats the least fortunate of its people, or something like that? Well, the U.S.A., Massachusetts, and Amherst are somewhat negligent toward the homeless, who are among the least fortunate.

(I just discovered that that indirect quote has been misattributed to Mohandas Gandhi, but he never said or wrote it, so it belongs to all of us who use similar terms.)

Please forgive me if I have some of the timing a little off. I tried to find good information about some of the law changes, but they are not as easy to find as I expected.

Article on how the release of mental patients started.

Updated 07-26-2016 at 02:18 PM by PeterL