Saturday, November 1, 2008

Being homeless on Cape Cod is no picnic

The first homeless person I ever met on Cape Cod was more than 15 years ago, when my daughters and I were camping at Nickerson State Park. He was on crutches, a carpenter hurt on the job, and he and his wife had been moving from campsite to campsite.

"I'm not really homeless," he told me. "Nine months of the year I rent a house in Orleans. But the other three months we have to go somewhere else, because my landlord can get in one week what I pay her a month."

Back in 1990, Nickerson's was first-come, first-served; there was a two week maximum on how long campers could stay. But in this family's case, the rangers looked the other way when they'd re-register and move their tent and gear to another site. To me it seemed tedious but doable.

Fifteen years later homelessness on Cape Cod has gotten bad enough that rancor runs high between the business community and the homeless and providers. A public hearing in Hyannis earlier this week resulted in some name-calling, with Cynthia Cole, the head of the Businesss Improvement District shouting, ""Why don't you go back to work?" at a homeless woman, and a homeless man telling a homeowner whose house had been broken into (she assumes by a homeless person) to "Take a valium." Cape Cod Times. Other residents consider the homeless to be "washashore" people attracted by a Field of Dreams-- the "if you built it, they will come" state of being that can only be ended by eliminating services for homeless people.

Homeless providers say the shelters in Hyannis are very low-key and that shelters are not the problem. Indeed, it seems to be a small number of street people, maybe twenty, on whom complaints most focus. Homeless single people with severe mental health or addiction prolems are not welcome at most shelters. But shelters are full and many people on the street just have nowhere to go. The Leadership Council to End Homelessness on Cape Cod and the Islands has counted 43 family members and 64 individuals living who are homeless and unsheltered.

Hyannis businesspeople want homeless services "decentralized," saying Hyannis bears a disproportionate share of the responsibility. Of course this is the mantra of every metropolitan area, many of whose citizens seem to think that if the shelters disappeared, homeless people would disappear also.

Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who was in Hyannis yesterday to announce a $2 million, five year grant to assist the region with its Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, suggested cooperation rather than conflict might serve the region better. Mangano's focus for the last six years has been on "Housing First"-- get the chronic users of homeless services into housing and provide supportive services to help keep them stabilized. A few communities, like my home city Springfield, MA, have started working to integrate "crisis" homelessness into their "chronic" homelessness plan. All possible successes, however, begin with a supply of affordable housing, scarce everythere but rare on Cape Cod.

Joe Burns, a columnist with the Bourne Courier, remembers growing up a in working class neighborhood of storefront businesses with apartments upstairs, row housing and railroad flats It was a real neighborhood and it was affordable for regular people. But those neighborhoods are gone, and the mention of affordable housing sends ripples of fear through the homeowning community. That fear is built on on the grey, sprawling, almost prison-style affordable housing that was the federal model for so many years. Burns calls for a "back to square one" approach that uses what would now be called "smart growth" to build affordable housing and community at the same time.

Affordable housing is housing that has a realistic relationship with the average family income in a given area, something that even within the current downturn in property values is not often found on the market. Affordable housing is the foundation of our economic pyramid, one that is straining as a result of the economic imbalance at the top

In the past 25 years housing prices have increased tenfold. Family incomes haven’t come close to keeping pace. And as incomes shrink as the result of inflation, salary freezes and unemployment, the disparity grows greater. And as it does it’s becoming increasingly clear that there that there is no “them” there’s only “us”— the seniors on fixed incomes and shrinking retirement funds, the families trying to meet mortgage payments while the value of the earnings and their home decreases, the single parent trying to rent a house with financial assistance that pays only a pittance of the actual cost, the growing number of jobless and homeless. Every man, woman and child hurt by years of corporate greed and federal incompetence and irresponsibility. It’s you and me drowning in a sea of unaffordability.

Photo from Cape Cod Cyclist's photostream at Flickr.


Paul Levinson said...

Powerful and important post - my family has been going to the Cape for a month or two every summer since 1982, and we've definitely noticed a few homeless people...

Michaelann Bewsee said...

I've been going to the Cape since 1984 for vacation with my family, with many solo trips before. Odd how feared affordable housing is, given that some towns (Brewster, Orleans come to mind) seem to have no limits for filling every little lot with a house.

Mark said...

Homelessness is an extremely complicated problem. In my experience some people, believe it or not, actually choose the lifestyle. Some are victims of circumstance and others either have drug or mental health issues.

No doubt a greater understanding of the multiple causes of homelessness and the individuals involved would serve the business community well.

The upside of the economic issues facing our country is that home values will continue to fall for at least the near future making real estate cheaper. The downside is that with the foreclosure crisis rents are increasing.

I'm in favor of trying triple up economics anyways since those at the lowest rungs are likely to spend that money right back into the real economy.