Dr. Richard McGowan: A word about the homeless


By Dr. Richard McGowan

Guest columnist

People who are homeless have recently been the focal point of attention, especially in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles City Council voted 11-3 to ban homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and day care centers. Of course, being in California means the action drew a protesting mob that brought city council business to a halt. Other encampments, like the one near the L.A. freeway, were simply cleared out — despite the lack of sufficient shelters to house the homeless people.

But that is only L.A. companies are fleeing San Francisco due to the unhoused “street” people.

On the other side of the country, New York City Mayor Eric Adams is up to his elbows in problems associated with the homeless population. New York City faces a crisis in housing with the influx of people crossing the border illegally and heading to the Big Apple. Mayor Adams pleaded publicly for more monetary support to alleviate the problems attendant upon a large homeless population. In June, he used his executive power to end the 90-day shelter rule with the intention of getting more beds for migrants.

Here in Indiana, the situation is not so dire, although the plight of the homeless is getting attention. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette ran articles regarding homelessness on March 9, March 18 and May 31 this year.

A few months ago, The Indianapolis Star reported Indianapolis “is using $650,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund a six-person outreach team who will help people experiencing homelessness in the Mile Square connect with support services as well as interim and permanent housing.”

A year ago, the Star reported “Black residents continue to be disproportionately affected by homelessness in Marion County. Despite making up nearly 30% of the overall population, Black individuals accounted for 56% of the homeless population, an increase from last year’s 54%.”

That kind of disparity is certainly worth noting; however, it is not the only disparity. And in a genuine surprise to me, the Star noted “more individuals experiencing homelessness were male than other genders with about 62% identifying as male, 38% identifying as female and 0.3% identifying as another gender identity.” The data regarding the male-female imbalance approximates national data: 70% of the homeless population is male and 30% is female.

Digging deeper into the data, though, shows the abject destitution of the male homeless individuals. Were a person to combine the number of sheltered and unsheltered female homeless individuals, that number would be smaller than the male unsheltered population. In 2022, the female homeless sheltered individuals numbered 65,808 and the unsheltered were at 61,044, a combined total of 126,852 homeless female individuals. The number for unsheltered male individuals was 151,297 individuals. In fact, there were more sheltered female homeless individuals than unsheltered female homeless individuals. For men, it was the other way around — more unsheltered than sheltered.

I suspect that were the numbers reversed and the female homeless population was more than twice the males, there would be a strong and vocal outcry. My suspicion is based on the history of deaths of despair. When women suffered an increase in deaths of despair, only then did people become attentive. However, men were about four times more likely to suffer a death of despair, a fact which went little reported.

It is good Indiana policymakers are attentive to the homeless population even if men, especially Black men, will benefit. Policy to help the homeless follows a corporal work of mercy, that is, sheltering the homeless, and corresponds with the culturally universal obligation to be charitable.

The policy also follows the Hoosier sense of hospitality, a reason why Indiana is among the 10 states with the lowest homeless population rate at 8 per 10,000 people. The highest rate among states ought to come as no surprise — California with 43.7 homeless people per 10,000 people. Rounding out the top five states are Vermont at 43.1, Oregon at 42.3, Hawaii at 41.4 and then New York at 37.7.

The numbers pale, though, in comparison to Washington, D.C.’s 65.8 homeless individuals per 10,000 people. The 2022 data may be outdated already given the influx of homeless people crossing into the United States at our southern border.

Various organizations are doing the admirable work of helping the less fortunate among us, including Indianapolis’s own Wheeler Mission. The CAUF Society (Cold And Uncared For; caufsociety.com) has a wealth of information and tips for charitable action concerning homeless individuals. As noted previously, it is good to help the homeless even if men might be the primary beneficiaries.

Richard McGowan, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. Send comments to [email protected].

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