Friday, March 20, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance

Anger over the AIG bonuses continues to roil, enough so that the House of Representatives wants to tax bonuses paid by companies owing bailout money to the federal government at 90%. Politicians are scrambling to find face time with the press so that they too can display their outrage at executives who failed miserably at their jobs receiving $1 million+ in retention bonuses. After all, the country is in the midst of an economic crisis, thousands of people are losing their jobs each day, and many of them are losing their homes at the same time.

The anger is appropriate, but it came much later than I thought it would. I guess it took a dose of personal pain for the middle class to discover how deeply it had been duped. While I don't think we are on the verge of class warfare, much less revolution, we do seem to be at a tipping point.

In the midst of all of this anger and angst comes news that the city of Sacramento, California, has decided to close the tent city that recently was featured by Oprah Winfrey on her show. Back in January, I posted on the tent city that had informally developed along the American River atop a grassed over landfill. The location was not chosen for its scenic beauty, but rather for its proximity to soup kitchens, shelters, and non-governmental service agencies. The city shifted its stance from the constant rousting of the illegal campers to one of benign tolerance, so the encampment grew.

There were some benefits to the city's attitude. The camp made it easier to locate and provide services to the homeless population. Social service groups also organized the camp so as to make it safer. The experiment, however, was not a solution, but rather a temporary "fix" until the city could figure out what to do about the homeless problem.

And then came Oprah and the subsequent national and international coverage of the new "Hooverville." As of the writing of the Los Angeles Times article, there were no toilet facilities at the camp, and it wasn't until all the publicity that a dumpster was donated. Living conditions are crude and, to say the least, unsanitary.

Apparently shamed by the national spotlight on the camp, the city decided to close the tent city, but will do so by finding more traditional shelter for its inhabitants. Unfortunately, that too will be a temporary fix. One social service provider estimated that about 80% of the tent city have been homeless for longer than a year, and many of them have physical and mental health problems, including addiction. Simply providing them with a bed isn't addressing all of their problems, even if it is a start.

What it will take is a comprehensive program, one much like the pilot project I described here. The difficulty is that with the bursting of the housing bubble, local governments are going to be in even deeper budgetary crisis than most are at the present. Cities and states are going to need federal help in dealing effectively with the homeless, whether newly on the street or long time denizens.

Instead of pouring trillions into failed companies and their loser executives' pockets, Congress and President Obama just might want to consider bailing out local governments so we can get people back on their feet. Now, with most Americans appalled at the unbounded greed of the "haves and have mores", is the right time to start shifting the focus to the "have little and have nothings."

That's the kind of profound change which will be required.

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