Homeless Data Based on Politics, Not Numbers

Dec. 21 used to be the first day of winter. Not anymore. Now it's "National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day" — thanks to squishy data on homelessness and politics.

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson recognized National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day as he "encouraged the nation to take the time to remember the millions of homeless individuals who don’t have a warm bed, a nutritious meal, or a family to go home to this holiday."

Although the day has been marked by homeless activists since 1990, this is the first time the federal government has paid its respects. Even the bleeding heart Clinton administration never recognized it.

This recognition only seems like compassionate conservatism on crack. There is another explanation—albeit a pathetic one.

Secretary Thompson’s announcement comes on the heels of the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s 27-city survey on hunger and homelessness.

The survey reported "hunger and homelessness rose sharply in major Americans cities over the last year." Requests for emergency food assistance climbed an average of 23 percent and requests for emergency shelter increased an average of 13 percent, according to the report.

Worried about the trumpeted increase in food and shelter requests occurring on its watch and not wanting to be perceived as insensitive to the problem, the Bush administration hopes to defuse the issue by embracing National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

The billions of dollars that taxpayers already provide for homeless services apparently is insufficient homage by the government.

The Bushies, however, should take a closer look at the Conference of Mayors’ report and homelessness before they debase society with a "Memorial Day" for crack heads, the lazy, the mentally ill and those down on their luck.

Homeless shelters and soup kitchens probably are somewhat busier this year than last—we are in an economic downturn after all. But does this really represent skyrocketing rates of "hunger" and "homelessness"?

Food and shelter requests have increased every year, regardless of economic growth or contraction, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ data first collected in 1986. Overall, food requests are up about 1,200 percent and shelter requests are up about 700 percent since 1986.

Requests for these services, however, do not necessarily translate into actual needs for these services, a fact overlooked in the Conference of Mayors’ report.

Free food and lodging are probably very popular in low income areas. And the more free food and lodging available, the more likely the services are to be exploited by those who might not really need them.

Who says there is no such thing as a free lunch? Two-thirds of the cities in the survey report that no food requests are turned down.

The Conference of Mayors’ annual surveys are somewhat informal and hardly scientific. In fact, there are no precise or reliable data on the phenomenon of homelessness.

It’s doubtful that real urban indigence has increased to the extent the Conference of Mayors’ claims. Spending billions of taxpayer dollars and private contributions on the homeless—not to mention tremendous national economic growth—hasn’t made the problem worse, has it?

The mayors certainly have an interest in making the problem appear dire. The worse the problem, the more money will flow into their programs allowing the mayors to dispense more political patronage.

We’re a rich and generous society and we help those who don’t have food, shelter and medical needs. Our charity even extends to those less deserving of our sympathies, including drug abusers, boozers and the lazy who simply want a free ride.

While it may be too much to ask that taxpayer-funded homeless programs serve only the truly needy, do we have to cheapen "Memorial Day"—the day on which we honor our war dead—because the Bushies can’t otherwise manage the politics of homelessness?

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).