Sunday, August 19, 2012

Star Ledger: Atlantic City needs help addressing homelessness

The Star Ledger editorial board calls government to task for neglecting to provide housing for the homeless.

Published: Saturday, August 11, 2012:

There are many reasons the homeless come to Atlantic City: for shelter, a feeding kitchen, a temporary job. Many hope that charity follows a windfall; a lucky winner may be feeling generous.
But for too long, this entire city has been on a losing streak — and having panhandlers on the streets doesn’t help. With the recent opening of the Revel luxury casino and Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to recast its seedier side as family-friendly, Atlantic City is fighting for its image. So you can understand the frustration of local officials: They’re trying to attract tourists, not homeless people.
Yet other counties without shelters are still referring their homeless to Atlantic City’s overcrowded shelter.
Homelessness is a complex problem made worse by unemployment, harsh cuts to social services and the lack of affordable housing. A bill proposed by Republican Assemblymen Chris Brown and John Amodeo calls much-needed attention to the issue, but it isn’t likely to solve it. Their hope is at least to get lawmakers to examine why the system is failing.
The bill aims to prevent “Greyhound therapy,” an expression for the one-way bus ticket some communities give homeless people to go away. It would make it a disorderly persons offense to do this without first developing a case management plan, explaining why the services can’t be provided within the community and calling ahead to make sure a bed’s available.
In theory, it’s a good idea. Homeless people should be treated and housed in their own communities. The practical effect, though, is to flip up yet another barrier in a society that has long been playing pinball with the homeless — this time, on the receiving end. Because the reality is, everyone knows there aren’t enough shelter beds. So what’s the point of calling ahead?
When the safety net crumbles, charity-based shelters such as Atlantic City’s become the last line of help. Having passed budgets that underfund these services, politicians shouldn’t be surprised when the homeless have nowhere else to go. But they’re right that local governments can’t rely on “bus therapy.” Towns and counties also need to better coordinate and deploy the funding they have: Is it too often spent on emergency motel stays, rather than shelters? Or better yet, affordable housing?
Last month, Christie created a council to study the problem. We hope its recommendations are far-reaching. Many homeless people also come to Atlantic City of their own volition, and never go to a shelter.
So instead of just passing laws that shuffle the homeless around, we should focus on finding real solutions: getting people affordable housing; treating them for mental illness or addictions; helping them secure jobs.
And re-evaluating our budget priorities: Remember when Christie raised income taxes on the working poor and grabbed money set aside for affordable housing? And when the Democrats cut welfare and drug treatment programs?
That needs fixing, too, if we really want to solve the problem of homelessness in Atlantic City.

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