Some conservative analysts are comparing the federal government's annual financial allotment for homeless services as an exercise in careless spending, similar to the 1980s movie, "The Money Pit." Remember Tom Hanks and Shelley Long buying that million dollar mansion only to find out that they had to pump in their life's savings to keep the residence from imploding?
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced that the federal government spent $2.9 billion for federal homeless programs in 2009, a dollar amount typically allocated each year.
In this season of a growing national budget deficit, where lawmakers are fighting over what sort of government spending cuts should be implemented, critics of homeless spending jumped on this GAO report.
Three billion dollars per year, and homelessness continues to soar? Certainly the infrastructure to end homelessness is imploding, critics state. They say that with the national cost of building a home pegged at $200,000 per unit, 145,000 homes for the homeless could be built each year with this money.
That is a lot of homes, a lot of housed homeless people.
Is the government really using its dollars to end homelessness, or is this multi-billion dollar annual investment just another kind of pork-barrel scheme?
Congressional leaders steer federal dollars back to their local jurisdictions to appease their constituents. Are national leaders investing dollars into homeless services in order to quiet homeless persons and their advocates? Sort of like developing countries handing out free rice and beans to their hungry and impoverished populace so they won't revolt.
If you have encountered a homeless person along the road, at freeway off-ramps, or at the local outdoor mall, you know homelessness is not as simple as categorizing everyone as scraggly men reeking of alcohol, caked with dirt. You see former vets, women with children, and elderly men struggling with chronic diseases.
Homelessness is a result of a broken social safety net in this country, a system that spews out homeless people on to the streets from the Department of Defense, Department of Social Services, prisons, mental and physical health institutions, and foster care programs. Throw in unemployment, spousal and child abuse, lack of any comprehensive health care system for any one living below middle class, and this country ends up with more than a million Americans on the street. (Some even think the number is more.)
A multi-billion dollar housing development program implemented without social services to help those who are being housed would end up in hundreds of thousands of empty new homes. We have to address the issues of why a person became homeless as well as provide a home. Otherwise, building homes without services will end up in social foreclosure -- empty homes because people still struggle with their homeless-causing issue.
The trend toward providing homeless services today, however, does gear toward housing. They call it "Housing First." In the past, homeless service experts believed that we should provide services to homeless people before they are given a home. Today, experts believe we should provide a home and services at the same time.
A different direction in providing homeless services in this country will still not silence those who are critical of the $3 billion price tag. Perhaps compare the cost to the price tag of the Iraq War? Nearly one trillion dollars (on average $10 billion per month), only to find many of the vets return home to life on the streets?
With an annual budget of $3.55 trillion in 2010, this country's investment of $3 billion seems miniscule.
It is like Tom and Shelley paying for just a new roof on an otherwise dilapidated mansion, only to see the whole structure collapse from the weight of deficient investment.