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Understanding the Homeless
by Jimmy Dorrell

The night lasted forever. Traffic zoomed by amid occasional sirens, honks and backfires. The rocks underneath the sleeping bag seemed to grow larger through the evening. In and out of sleep, rolling over and over in an attempt at a short-term comfortable position. The hours of darkness dripped away so slowly. Finally morning.

The annual "sleep out under the bridge" is a harsh reminder of just a few hours in the life of the homeless. It is a night when those of us who normally sleep in comfort are profoundly reminded of those in our own city, state and nation who have no place to call home.

In a nation of plenty, over 2 million men, women and children sleep each night under bridges, in shelters, on friends' couches, or in the back seats of cars.

Who are they? Why are there so many more today? Though the myths of poverty and homelessness abound in the midst of a love-hate relationship with the general public, the truths are clear to anyone who really wants to know. They are more than people without homes. They are disaffiliated and caught in a cycle that is difficult to overcome. Unlike the stereotypical skid-row bum, only about 5 percent are really "lazy and shiftless."

Instead, today's homeless are baby boomers or younger. They are not transients, but mostly local residents. Most are single men with significant problems. One-third of all homeless are mentally ill, outside the institutions available two decades ago. Forty percent are alcoholics.

Most of the chronic homeless are usually dual-diagnosed with alcoholism and mental illness. Forty percent suffer from disabling physical disorders. Ten percent use drugs. One third are veterans. Women and children are the fastest growing group. Most get little or no public assistance. Almost all lack support systems.

Yet with all the media and public attention that goes to them and with more people than ever standing on street corners with their sins, homelessness is still mostly misunderstood and untreated. Because of the pervasiveness of the issue, which won't seem to go away, most Americans have grown weary of the problem. They waffle between "compassion fatigue" and blaming the victim. The 1990s are now being characterized as a decade of "anti-homelessness."

Alice Baum and Donald Burnes, in A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness, write that denial is the state of the art when it comes to policy about this problem. "In the face of compelling evidence, the primary issue is not the lack of homes for the homeless; the homeless need access to treatment and medical help for the conditions that prevent them from being able to maintain themselves independently in jobs and housing." Alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness are national health problems among all socio-economic groups, yet particularly hard on the poor. The cost of alcoholism alone accounts for an estimated $85.8 billion a year in reduced or lost productivity, not to mention the 300 people who die each day from alcohol-related causes.

Yet small group homes like Mission Waco's Manna House, which offer free alcohol-drug treatment in a Christian atmosphere for homeless or poor men, struggle for funding because of the denial of the real issues. Often, helpers would rather provide blankets or soup kitchens instead of attack the more difficult root problems, solutions to which are more costly and do not provide immediate results.

Support for Compassion Ministries, Salvation Army, Mission Waco, Caritas, and other providers which help the poor, is important. But new programs and initiatives which target the most vulnerable people of our society are critical.