The mayor's Homeless Coordinating Council will convene next month to develop a series of recommendations for the mayor as he seeks to alleviate the needs of those without personal shelter. This 77-member group represents a broad spectrum of community interests, which is as it should be. Although concern has been voiced about whether such a large group made up of individuals with strongly held, sometimes conflicting opinions can accomplish anything of substance, the reality is that no progress can be made without true community participation in setting goals. Similarly, once goals have been established, no meaningful resolution of the problem will occur unless the interest of the entire community is in fact engaged.
The homeless are but the tip of the iceberg, broadly described as those in poverty who continue to exist in our affluent society. In the fairly recent past the number of those described as being poor in this country far outnumbered those who enjoyed the privileges of the middle and upper economic classes. The number of poor was so large, as is now the case in countries like India, that little could be done to address their problems without improving the economic condition of the entire nation, thereby lifting the disadvantaged from poverty at the same time as the fortunes of their fellow countrymen were improved. The percentage of the population in poverty in the United States is now of a magnitude that is realistically subject to improvement. There are enough people who are well off to be able to give assistance to the smaller group that is in dire need of help. The number of people who are homeless represents a small fraction of those in poverty and, because of the relatively modest absolute number, is therefore susceptible to improvement through the allocation of resources that are realistically available. This community has the capacity to assist the 6,000 to 10,000 homeless with whom we coexist. What is at question is our will.
The homeless are, of course, not all the same and cannot be helped except individually. It is clear that a workable filtering process will have to be established to be sure that those needing remedial education will not be confused with the mentally disabled. Each need, whether it be social counseling, health care or drug or alcohol rehabilitation, must be addressed specifically in a safe environment that includes adequate food, shelter and clothing if our fellow citizens are to be returned to productive lives. The young, old, singles and families in this population have a variety of backgrounds, and their personal histories must be understood and respected if a rehabilitation program is to be successful.
This individual approach to improvement will require an adequate commitment of funds and participation of the community if it is to be successful. There must be a strong political will, partnership with business, churches, schools and other institutions as well as energetic participation by individuals. The cost in time and resources is insignificant when measured against the value of the lives of those who are part of the homeless population. The approximately 900 families that are among the homeless include more than 2,000 children, whose lives will be forever spoiled without help now. A local plan drawn in the context of a regional approach to the problem, with appropriate support from all of those active in the community, including the federal government, can be successful. Those in the federal government should be particularly conscious of the opportunity they have for participation in this effort. Washington, as the capital of the nation, can set a precedent of responsibility that will be noticed and followed nationally and even internationally.
The Homeless Coordinating Council will develop a solid plan for action that will be presented to the mayor. The community must then decide on its measure of commitment. The opportunity is so great and the prospects so good that it would be unconscionable to "walk around it" as we too frequently walk around a street person resting on a very cold sidewalk in our wintry city. -- Oliver Carr is the chairman of The Oliver Carr Co. and serves as chairman of Mayor Barry's Homeless Coordinating Council.