Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Reagan Legacy: Homelessness

A Shining City on the Hill Overlooking Millions of Homeless People

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States. It also marks 30 years since the start of the Reagan presidency and the explosion in homelessness in America. Reagan's legacy has grown significantly since he left office to the point of a mythology that has little basis in fact. In the mid 1980s, during the Reagan presidency, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless along with many other homeless groups were founded. This was in response to the explosion in homelessness and the growing number of families experiencing housing instability.

This was not a partisan issue or a media driven issue. Homeless shelters were built in the 1980s and they were full. Going back all the way to the early 1950s and the development of public housing for returning veterans, the US government led by presidents from both parties developed affordable housing. One of the most dramatic expansions in affordable housing occurred during the Richard Nixon administration. There was a huge tax cut at the beginning of the Reagan presidency with a promise of massive cuts to government that never materialized thus destabilizing the government. Domestic spending on poverty related programs were cut, but not to equal the decline in revenue from the first tax cut. The Reagan administration had to repeatedly increase taxes to try to pay for the expansion in military spending and that tax cut the first year. There were cuts to legal services, jobs programs, massive cuts to funds for cities, and cuts to public transit that helped people get to work in America's cities. The network of family shelters in Cleveland started in the mid 1980s. Before the 1980s, family homelessness was a short interruption to housing and the charities and religious groups would pay for a hotel stay. Most of these shelters in the 1980s were temporary structures in the basement of government buildings, churches or empty retail spaces. No one thought that this problem would be around for 30 years.

The Heritage Foundation and the National Review have written many stories trying to rehabilitate the Reagan legacy including attempts to cast doubt on the explosion in homelessness. Carl Horowitz of Heritage Foundation in 2004 pointed to the acceptance of divorce, and the courts allowing people to become homeless by striking down vagrancy laws in the 1970s and the media driving this story as the big reasons for explosions in homelessness. Horowitz claims that Washington DC activist, Mitch Snyder, built a straw man in Ronald Reagan and the media ate it up. Horowitz blames the courts for providing civil rights to all people thus allowing homeless people to become visible. He just dismisses the fact that there were all these people who no longer had a place to live, and blames the courts for allowing them to be visible. If America could have just hid the population, this would not have become a story and homelessness would not be tied to President Reagan.

Reagan attacked "welfare queens" and claimed homeless people slept on grates by choice. This was the beginning of the hostility toward low income and homeless people, and it was led by the Reagan Administration. The United States has yet to recover from this class warfare on those without money. There developed a common narrative in the United States that poor people were lazy, criminals, or crazy. This was the beginning of the assault on government and the pervasive thinking that government could not do anything well. There was massive distrust in government from Viet Nam War, Watergate, and the many veterans traumatized and living on the streets of America. We gave up on solving problems as a country and lionized the individual. We championed those who picked themselves up by their boot stapes even as we made it more difficult to start businesses or survive without government help. We have consolidated wealth and income inequality has exploded making it nearly impossible to break through to turn good ideas into income.

The reality in Cleveland is that during the eight year presidency of Ronald Reagan, the number of shelters expanded dramatically. People filled those shelters, and they were not always the best places to live. There were large numbers sleeping on the street not because it was cool or fashionable, but because so many people had no where else to live. They slept on steam grates in order to survive and feel safe. If you only had a couple of bucks in your pocket and some warm clothing left, is it better to sleep on the street visible to police driving by or in a remote industrial site with no protection from thieves and gang members? We did not fulfill the promises made to people with mental illnesses over the previous two decades that we would provide community care in lieu of locking fragile individuals away in asylums. We demonized a segment of our population beginning in the 1980s and we are still paying for those decisions today.

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