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July 23, 2006
City's plan gives hope to the homeless

by George McDonald
By announcing that New York City will launch a new initiative to clear 73 homeless encampments and help their inhabitants to enter supportive housing, treatment programs and shelters, Mayor Bloomberg has boldly demonstrated that an end to the homeless crisis is possible and that he is sincerely committed to reaching this goal.

This initiative crystallizes a strikingly different approach to the problem. Until now homelessness has been considered a lifestyle choice that had to be accommodated, but this notion, mistakenly confused with compassion, allowed the homeless population to persist and fester.

The moral failing of this approach is that it enables and approves a sense of worthlessness among homeless people, who believe they are incapable of working and functioning in mainstream society. But they only "choose" to be homeless because they have never learned, or have forgotten, any other way to live. In the vast majority of cases, this is due to many years of substance abuse or lifetimes spent in and out of institutions that expect nothing of them and offer no path to a more productive life.

New York City's new approach practices the kind of intervention needed to help those who have become accustomed to self-destructive and degrading living conditions.

Inevitably, organizations that claim to work on behalf of the homeless will seek to block these initiatives, as before, through lawsuits against the city. They refuse to acknowledge that the city has actually made progress on homelessness because the city's success refutes their philosophy of giving no-string-attached handouts to the homeless, and expecting nothing of them.

It is time for homeless advocates to join the city in adopting new, more progressive principles that can ultimately bring an end to the crisis altogether.

Homeless people, even those who have spent most of their lives abusing drugs and living on the streets, are willing to work and capable of supporting themselves, given the right guidance and incentive. More than 2,250 have done so through the Ready Willing & Able paid-work rehabilitation program, and many more will accomplish this dream if homeless advocates decide to cooperate with the city's outreach to the homeless and to support these innovative programs.

McDonald is the founder and president of The Doe Fund, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing jobs, drug treatment, shelter and job training to the homeless.     

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