Leading from the Left

Friday, February 02, 2007

Homeless in Hillsborough

There is an excellent article in this week's News of Orange entitled "Homeless in Hillsborough." Writers Keri Springer and Casey Ferrell begin a series of three articles on homelessness, and in this first article they follow volunteers who recently undertook a sweeping count of the homeless in Orange County. Whereas in Chapel Hill and Carrboro the homeless are more visible and more numerous, we often don't think about the homeless in our county seat. In terms of raising our awareness, this is a very valuable article, and I'm glad the News of Orange is tackling this subject.

About a year ago I was being interviewed by a young reporter for the Daily Tarheel. She was probably around 20 and just starting out as a journalist. In a wide-ranging interview, she eventually got around to asking about Chapel Hill's homeless problem, and I found myself explaining to her that we haven't always had this problem in the US. I explained that when I was her age, we didn't see these large numbers of street people, sleeping in shelters or in the woods or in shop doorways. But the Reagan 'revolution' brought about the closing of substance abuse and mental health programs, particularly halfway houses and the like. Reagan promised a 'social safety net' when these programs were defunded but, perhaps predictably, that safety net never materialized and we saw a spike in the homeless population.

Because substance abuse and mental health issues are often key contributors to leading someone to become homeless, the defunding of these programs meant that people with legitimate illnesses were no longer gettting the help they needed. It was no wonder that they ended up losing jobs and losing their homes.

I think it's important to acknowledge that the homeless issue hasn't always been as bad as it is today, and we don't have to just assume that it's going to continue to exist. We can take steps to change the status quo.

I'm glad folks like Keri and Casey are raising awareness. Homelessness isn't just a problem affecting urban areas; it hits small towns just as hard.